Sarah Palin’s Real Record on Special Needs

Last week, in a major speech on disabilities in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, delivered to several groups of medical professionals, Sarah Palin promised that she would be an advocate for special needs families as vice president. It is a theme she has sounded since her nomination speech at the Republican National Convention.

Along the way, in an effort to cast her as a hypocrite, critics have launched a series of claims that Governor Palin cut programs for special needs kids. For the most part, these claims have been debunked, but the question remains, what has Palin done as governor to support her promise to be a champion for families with special needs?

To find out more, I went directly to a key source: I consulted with Stephen Lesko, executive director of an Anchorage, Alaska agency, Hope Community Resources. Hope serves special needs families via foster care, respite care, mental-health care and a host of others services. Lesko’s organization received a 127 percent increase in fiscal year 2009 capital funding to help refurbish existing homes and facilities for disabled clients.

Asked about Governor Palin, Lesko said, "She has made significant progress in the area of disabilities in a very short period of time, the most I have seen in such a short period in my 30 years at Hope Community Resources."

Why is Mr. Lesko so sunny about Mrs. Palin’s record?

Two initiatives pushed by the Palin administration add to her credibility as an advocate for special needs families: First, she directed the Department of Health and Social Services to decrease the number of people waiting to receive services, and, second, she raised the reimbursement rates for agencies providing care for families with a disabled member.

According to Mr. Lesko, approximately 1,300 people were on a waiting list to receive disability services when Mrs. Palin began her term as governor. In Alaska, the supply of social services has not kept up with the demand, leading to a long wait for people who meet criteria for services but are not among the most serious cases. In an ambitious effort, the Palin administration is working to eliminate the waiting list by 2011. Currently, the state has reduced the list to just over 900 people.

"Palin is the first governor in my experience to take on this problem," Mr. Lesko claimed.

Mr. Lesko cited an example of a Down syndrome adult, Joe (not his real name), who had languished on Alaska’s waiting list for 12 years. Joe was recently chosen to be removed from the waiting list and now receives critical community supports. As Joe’s parents have aged, their ability to care for him diminished, leading to a critical need for professional care and support.

"Thanks to Governor Palin’s initiative, Joe and people like him are coming off the waiting list and getting the community based services they need," explained Lesko.

In another move welcomed by the state’s social-services providers, Governor Palin’s office called for and received needed raises in reimbursement rates for agencies like Hope. Mr. Lesko observed that during the tenure of Mrs. Palin’s predecessor in the governor’s office, Governor Frank Murkowski, reimbursement rates had been frozen. "This was the first increase we received in four years," Mr. Lesko observed. "Those increases are necessary to keep quality care for our families available."

Hope’s deputy director of legal affairs, Mike Zechman, added, "We are now able to pay direct service professionals better wages and have been able to hire more workers to provide more services."

What is ironic about Mr. Lesko’s assessment of Sarah Palin’s performance is that his agency was not given as much by the governor as the legislature had proposed. In short, Hope could have been at the subject of one of those media-driven claims of Palin budget cutting. In 2007, the legislature proposed giving $350,000 to Hope and in 2008, $800,000. However, Governor Palin’s office trimmed the 2007 grant to $176,000 and the 2008 total to $400,000.

Did Mr. Lesko see the governor’s actions as a cut in funding? Not at all. In fact, he told me, "We were encouraged by the increases we received. Governor Palin has been very supportive of improving services to the disabled and we see the glass as more than half full."

According to Mr. Lesko, Sarah Palin’s promises on the campaign trail are being realized now in Alaska. It remains to be seen whether Mrs. Palin will be able to bring her special needs advocacy to Washington, DC.

Warren Throckmorton, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy in the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College (PA). He maintains an active blog at