Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Blue State, Red Tape

Most babies walk at one year. So when my son wasn’t even “cruising” (walking along furniture) by 15 months, our pediatrician recommended physical therapy and gave us the number for early intervention services in Minneapolis.

We called the next day, and a week later a pair of state and county employees showed up at our door. They spent 15 minutes with my son, determined he was eligible for the program, and then we started in on the paperwork.

“So, when does the therapy start?” I asked.

“Oh, this is just the initial interview. We’ll do the full assessment later.”

Another week passed, and a trio of people arrived. One was from the original pair, one was from the public schools, a third was from health and family services. We all spent another 15 minutes watching my kid crawl around.

“So, when does the therapy start?” I asked.

“Well, we need to process this paperwork and develop his action plan first.”

Another week passed. Another trio arrived. Again, only one face was familiar. This time we reviewed and approved the plan.

“So, how much will all of this cost?”

The agency folks looked aghast. “Oh no,” they said. “There’s no cost. You pay nothing.” We were glad the service would be free, and we looked forward to scheduling the therapy.

We heard nothing.

Weeks passed. We placed a couple calls, didn’t hear back. Was the program on hold for the summer? Was the state government shutdown to blame? Was our son at the end of a waiting list? There was no way to tell. To top it off, the first communication we received was a survey asking us to rate our experience with the program.

My son is now 20 months old. He has received two visits from a talented physical therapist, and he is finally walking. (Staggering, really, like a drunken mummy. But walking nevertheless.)

I chose this story for my first entry here because it sits right on this blog’s eponymous divide, illustrating how traditional liberal/conservative thinking is incapable of addressing an important issue.

The bureaucracy in this program is out of control. It should not take six state and county employees to coordinate two 30-minute therapy sessions. It takes fewer people to plan a wedding. Yet liberals would be reluctant to investigate the program or accept cuts to its budget. Many would agree that nobody should pay extra for these services, even two professionals who can afford it.

At the same time, the program is clearly helpful and necessary. Our therapist ruled out some of the scarier underlying causes of late walking, which put my mind (and my wife’s mind) at ease. She showed us some exercises that helped our son get moving. In addition, as the program team informed us, medical insurance does not cover early intervention. Yet conservatives would likely identify this program as a prime example of government bloat, and target it for defunding -- a hard choice made to preserve fiscal integrity.

Neither position makes sense. These services should extract some dollars from recipients who can afford to pay, and they should be delivered more efficiently. But reducing the program’s budget would not make it run more smoothly. If anything, wait-time would increase. And cutting it entirely would leave a lot of needy kids in the lurch.

What would get us across the divide is an honest evaluation of the program and its objectives, how it can meet these goals with less bureaucratic nonsense, and whether it should be free to all, regardless of means.

This would be, as our President likes to say, hard work. More important, it’s the kind of work that requires genuine bi-partisan collaboration -- the kind that becomes impossible in a divisive political climate. Here’s hoping we can do better.


Anonymous Rick said...

Lars, what a great story of bureaucracy in action - or is it - inaction. Though not as personal as your story, I struggle with my bureaucratic demons thanks to a friggin' putt-putt course just a few blocks from my home. Check out this synopsis from

"Fanplex was an entertainment center in Atlanta, Georgia, adjacent to Turner Field. It opened in 2002 and was shut down in early 2004 after losing $500,000, above and beyond an initial investment of $2.5 million.

The attraction was meant to lure fans of the Atlanta Braves with miniature golf and video games, and to pump economic activity into the depressed area around the stadium. However, Fanplex saw little business, even on game days, perhaps since it was actually located far away from most game-day foot traffic. An initial staff of 16 was pared down to one and operating hours were scaled back as patrons continued not to show up.

Critics say Fanplex was largely built to justify the existence of the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority, which was originally created to manage Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and The Omni, both of which no longer exist, along with Zoo Atlanta."

Now, twenty months later, it sits empty and unsold at a cost of about $25,000 per month. In other words, another $500,000 is gone.

What burns me is there was never any incentive for this facility to succeed - albiet its lofty notions of helping an impoverished neighborhood. This authority has a budget to oversee three major venues in Atlanta - two of which were blown up in the late 90's. Zoo Atlanta, the third venue, is succeeding in large part thanks to community and corporate sponsorship. These "board" members had a budget which, if unspent, would have jeopardized their existence. I know! Let's build a putt-putt course and arcade room! We'll call it Fanplex - The Infotainment Center!

What is doubly upsetting is City Hall let it happen. It's easy to think them all idiots but I have to believe sane voices spoke up but were silenced. I guess $3.5 million in a city budget of more than a billion dollars wouldn't register with most people. But it does for me. Especially as I stare at that weed-choked windmill and clown's mouth everyday and wonder if I'll ever see their point of view.

12:41 PM  

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