Kate Blaker is among the voices of thousands of people with physical and intellectual disabilities to campaign for greater control of their finances for future expenses.

After three years of advocating before federal and state officials, they were heard.

In April, the Pennsylvania Treasury Department launched the PA Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) program signed into law last year by Gov. Tom Wolf.

Blaker, 64, of Washington County is one of 151 people in the state to enroll in an ABLE account, according to current figures from the treasury department.

"This is a way for people to spend money in a way they couldn't before and obtain services to help be more independent," said Blaker.

The new type of savings account is tax free and available to qualified individuals diagnosed with a severe disability before age 26 eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance.

They can also self certify that they meet certain disability standards.

Blaker lives with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that appears early in infancy or early childhood and permanently affects body movement and muscle coordination. She was diagnosed at age two.

Currently, individuals with disabilities are limited to having $2,000 in assets to remain eligible for benefit programs they have come to depend on forcing many to live in a state of poverty.

With an ABLE account, individuals and others, including legal entities, can contribute up to $14,000 a year with an overall limit of $100,000 before suspending, but not terminating, Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

The money can be used for basic living costs such as housing, education, transportation, employment training and support, assistive technology and personal support services, financial management, legal fees and funeral and burial expenses not covered by insurance if related to their disability.

Also, to help supplement existing benefits provided by Medicaid, Social Security and private insurance.

While the law permits states to take any remaining assets in an ABLE account to payback Medicaid when the disabled person dies, Pennsylvania has chosen not to enforce the payback.

However, it will seek repayment from the account owner's estate, which may include any residual ABLE account funds.

Representatives at human service agencies in Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties said information on PA ABLE is essential for supports coordinators and the individuals they serve as well as their families.

Deneen Chulick, director of Intellectual and Developmental Disability Services Program in Greene County, said speakers on PA ABLE are hard to come by and more details about the program are needed to educate people about its benefits.

According to Social Security Administration, 368,212 people in Pennsylvania receive Supplemental Security Income based on the most recent figures from 2015.

Of that number, 68,796 are under 18; 233,361 are age 18-64 and 66,055 are age 65 or older.

For A.J. and Suzanne Boni of Perryopolis, opening a PA ABLE account for their 18 year-old daughter Alexis is on the radar.

Suzanne said the couple recently applied for SSI for their daughter, who attends the Highlands Hospital Regional Center for Autism five days a week, year round and will graduate from Frazier High School in 2020.

"She is our priority, you got to look to the future," said A.J.

Although Alexis may not need to use the money in a PA ABLE account right now, Suzanne said it's important to be prepared for her future.

"That's our concern, she will be 21 in three years and I won't be able to retire," said Suzanne.

For 19 years Blaker worked as a service coordinator at Tri County Patriots for Independent Living (TRPIL) until her position was eliminated because of funding cuts in the state budget.

The non-profit organization functions as a center for independent living providing advocacy, independent living skills training, information and referral, peer support, and transition as well as other programs and services, to promote people with disabilities living lives they choose, in the places they choose.

Blaker returned to TRPIL two-and-a-half-years ago as a volunteer service coordinator, which recently changed its name to Transitional Paths to Independent Living.

Initially, Blaker said she dreamed of owning a home and wished that PA ABLE was available then to have helped her save for needed repairs.

For now though, Blaker said she is comfortable with renting and will use the money instead for a special support she needs for her back.

The Congressional passage of the federal ABLE act dates back to 2014 with efforts led by U.S. Senator Bob Casey. It was introduced in Pennsylvania by Senator Lisa Baker and Rep. O'Neill (R-Bucks).

According to Brenda Dare, a fellow co-worker and supervisor, Kate was a driving force behind a series of conference calls, emails and visits between a handful of advocates at TRPIL during public comment period on PA ABLE.

"Kate definitely led that charge," said Dare.

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