Will the Budget Pass Muster with the Judge in Disabilities Case?

By Gina Macris

When Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo proposes a new state budget on Tuesday, Feb.
2, U.S. District Court Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. will be watching to see how the state plans to keep its promise to reform employment opportunities and other daytime services for people with disabilities.

 Rhode Island isn’t spending enough money to meet the deadlines set out in two and three-year-old consent decrees reached in landmark cases involving the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

 And an independent Court monitor overseeing the state’s efforts has said that if Rhode Island doesn’t meet certain benchmarks now, it will be unable to accomplish long-term goals at the end of the decade-long federal supervision spelled out in the consent decree.  

 But at a hearing Jan. 26, a state lawyer told McConnell that Raimondo’s budget would be a “game changer” in advancing Rhode Island’s response to the mandates.

 An internal committee of the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) tasked with redesigning services for people with developmental disabilities recommended $36 million in reforms last May,  but in an interview last Friday, a BHDDH spokesman said it is “very unlikely” that sum might appear in the governor’s proposal. 

If the Governor’s proposal falls short of McConnell’s expectations, it could set the scene for some courtroom drama during the upcoming months of budget deliberations at the State House.

The Court has the power to find the state in contempt – if it comes to that – and McConnell made it clear on Jan. 26 that he would not hesitate to use his authority if it is necessary. But said he hoped to avoid it.

 Let’s follow the case and the money at the heart of the issue before the Court.

The case surfaced in 2013 with a consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice and the City of Providence over Providence teenagers with developmental disabilities, who had been segregated in a program called the Harold A. Birch Vocational School. Birch prepared them for a lifetime of rote assembly-line jobs –at sub-minimum wage – in a sheltered workshop for adults at an agency called Training Through Placement in adjoining North Providence.

 The 2013 settlement – the first of its kind in the nation - asserted the young people’s right to receive services to support them in employment and day activities in more integrated, community-based settings in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

 "The Supreme Court made clear over a decade ago (in the so-called Olmstead decision of 1999) that unnecessary segregation of people with disabilities is discriminatory. Such segregation is impermissible in any state or local government program, whether it be residential services, employment services or other programs,” a U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman said at the time.

A year later, in June, 2014, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division reached a statewide agreement with then-Governor Lincoln Chafee which mirrored the Providence settlement.

Today, 31 percent of Birch graduates are employed in community-based settings – up from 14 percent six months ago – but those numbers fall far short of the mandated goal of 100 percent, according to the independent Court monitor, Charles Moseley, whose oversight continues through 2024. 

 He and a Justice Department lawyer, Victoria Thomas, each laid out a laundry list of other deficiencies in the Jan. 26 hearing before McConnell, who said he wanted to see the parties before him again in three months. 

 Now to the money:

 In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2005, Rhode Island paid $187.3 million in state and federal dollars to private agencies providing services to Rhode Islanders with intellectual disabilities, according to state figures. Currently, the state allocates $188.4 million to those services.  It’s all Medicaid money, with the state providing 45 cents on the dollar and the federal government paying the rest, according to the BHDDH spokesman.  

In the meantime, the number of people reaching adulthood with developmental disabilities has been increasing. The current annual rate is about 100, and the average yearly cost of supporting one person is $55,000. 

 From 2005 through fiscal 2008, the DD budget rose to $215.3 million. But as the shockwaves of the 2008 economic crash reverberated, the budget shrank, as did DD allocations in other states.

 While some other states started restoring money to DD services, Rhode Island slashed further.

 For the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, the Rhode Island General Assembly chopped nearly $26.5 million off the allocation, reducing it from $206.5 million to just under $180 million. That’s a cut of 12.8 percent in one year.

And BHDDH put in place a reimbursement system that does not cover all the services that agencies provide during daytime activities – only face-to-face contact with clients. The legwork necessary to set up job interviews or community activities, for example, is excluded. This arrangement “incentivized” the segregation of people with developmental disabilities in sheltered workshops and day facilities, Thomas, the Justice department lawyer, told McConnell on Jan. 26.

 Even though the BHDDH administration changed with the inauguration of Raimondo as Governor in 2015, the reimbursement system remains in place. Moreover, BHDDH allows agencies to collect the money owed for daytime supports only through a burdensome reporting process that requires documenting each worker’s time in 15-minute blocks, for each client. If a client is sick, the agency does not get its client-specific incremental payment for that day.   

Since 2011,  private nonprofit providers have cut workers’ pay to an average of $11 an hour, staff turnover has skyrocketed, and two agencies have closed their doors.

 In an interview on Friday, the BHDDH spokesman, Andrew J. McQuaide, acknowledged that satisfying the mandate for integration “fundamentally costs more than the system we have now.” He agreed that the system is geared toward “congregate centers for day programs and employment.”  Service providers should be held accountable, though, said McQuaide, the department’s new Chief Transformation Officer.

 Last October, Maria Montanaro, the BHDDH director, told a group of parents that the $36 million in redesign recommendations had been tabled because of the cost.

 On Friday, McQuaide said it’s “very unlikely” the $36 million in reforms would re-surface in the Governor’s budget proposal. 

“I’m unaware of anyone who thinks the state can afford to increase the DD funding by $36 million in a single year,” he said. “It would be unprecedented in a single fiscal year.”

“The question becomes how to sequence this,” McQuaide said.

 He said he couldn’t speculate on how the court will react.

 “There’s no way of knowing what would please the court,” he said. But “at the end of the day I am optimistic we will move in the right direction.”