By Gina Macris
(This article has been updated.)
For some Rhode Islanders with developmental disabilities, the shift between high school and the adult world has been likened to falling off a cliff.
Now, changes are underway to lay the groundwork for a smoother transition from high school to adult living, the latest being a new policy that the state will accept applications from individuals aged 16 and will determine their eligibility by the time they turn 17.
But it remains to be seen how far the state gets in delivering on its promise to a federal court to find jobs for every eligible young adult who can and wants to work by next June 30.
One potential problem is that, despite small raises recently granted to direct care workers, their employers still may not be able to hire the staff necessary to add new clients.
New, slightly higher reimbursement rates to private service providers reflect the raises but do not address continuing shortfalls in overhead costs borne by employers, according to a spokeswoman for some two dozen agencies.
For years, private providers have had trouble recruiting and retaining competent staff. A new employment incentive program, with a few exceptions, requires agencies to use existing funding to train workers, if necessary, and make job placements before collecting one-time bonuses.
According to evidence presented in U.S. District Court last April, young adults with developmental disabilities have been dismissed abruptly from high school on their 21st birthdays and have tended to sit at home for weeks or months because adult services were not in place.
Rhode Island law says individuals with developmental disabilities are eligible for adult services at age 18, although decisions on eligibility often have been made a few months before the young people turned 21.
With many agencies declining to accept new clients, families found it difficult and time-consuming to arrange services.
When services finally were pulled together, they often fell short of participants’ and families’ expectations, according to what U.S. District Court Judge John J. McConnell heard in April.
Since the April hearing, the General Assembly has enacted a law sponsored by the Senate Finance Committee chairman, Daniel DaPonte, that requires school districts to keep those 21-year-olds in class until the end of the academic year.
More recently, the Executive Office of Human Services (EOHHS) has updated plans to better identify, enroll, and serve young adults eligible for developmental disability services provided by the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) and the Office of Rehabilitation Services (ORS). Those plans include the new “eligibility determination by 17” policy.
In a dramatic departure from past practice, parents of youngsters who are likely to be eligible will be encouraged to apply for adult services when their sons and daughters turn 16.
Consent Decree Drives Change
The changes respond to requirements of a 2014 federal consent decree which aims to move adults with developmental disabilities out of sheltered workshops and segregated day programs that violate the Olmstead decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1999, the high court found that services for individuals with disabilities must be provided in the least restrictive environment that is therapeutically appropriate, with that environment presumed to be the community.
During the latest judicial review of the consent decree in September, an independent court monitor, Charles Moseley, noted that since the consent decree went into effect in April, 2014, the state has failed to meet targets for placing young adults in regular jobs in the community, with the necessary supports.
By July 1, 2016, the state was required to have placed all young adults who have left high school during the 2013-2014 academic year or later. At the time, 151 people were reported to be eligible, but the state’s total number of placements was 29.
Rather than hold a contempt hearing against the state, Judge McConnell has deferred to Moseley, who said was confident he could work with state officials to meet the employment goals.
Complicating the issue, the number of young adults in question has risen since July from 151 to 259. The Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) has updated its count of individuals with developmental disabilities who left school during the 2015-2016 school year and will continue to do so through June 30, 2017.
RIDE also has promised to expand the categories of individuals whose names it reports to BHDDH to more accurately reflect the total population of young people likely protected by the consent decree, according to Moseley’s most recent report to Judge McConnell Nov. 1.
Since the consent decree went into effect in 2014, RIDE has reported to BHDDH only the names of those with developmental disabilities who turn 21 and leave school.
Going forward, its count will include all those between the ages of 14 and 21 who have developmental disabilities, autism, or multiple disabilities that can be expected to restrict their ability to function independently as adults. The monitor wants RIDE to identify all those students by Nov. 15.
In the meantime, BHDDH, ORS, and RIDE will work together to notify all affected families of their protected status under terms of the consent decree and give them information about applying for services. (Click here for eligibility criteria in state law.)
General Assembly Increased DD Budget
To shore up the state’s ability to provide services once adults are found eligible, the General Assembly has approved an hourly wage increase of 36 cents for direct care workers – a total of $5 million – and allocated another $6.8 million to foster supported employment.
In addition RI Senate leaders have said they want to raise the current average wage of front line workers from $11.18 to $15 an hour over five years.
But the state still faces continuing consent decree deadlines for placing adults with developmental disabilities in jobs, including about 50 former sheltered workshop employees by Jan. 1, as well as a yet-to-be–determined number of eligible young adults by June 30.
The new $6.8 million supported employment program expects to begin disbursing funds in mid-November, according to an EOHHS document attached to Moseley’s latest filing with the court.
The program requires providers to have specially-trained employment teams in place to quality for the program and begin receiving a series of one-time bonuses. The bonuses reward the certification of employment specialists, job placements, and job retention for six months with totals that vary from about $3,500 to $15,750 per person, depending on the client’s age and the complexity of the disability.
The recent wage increases
The recent wage increases cover payroll–related taxes but do not add to the state’s reimbursement to private agencies for other aspects of employee overhead costs-taxes. Nor do the raises increase the pay of front-line supervisors or mid-level managers, according to Donna Martin., executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, an association of 26 agencies.
Martin says the state allows agencies 35 percent of direct care workers’ salaries for such overhead costs, but CPNRI data “shows actual employee-related expense is in excess of 60 percent.”
Last spring, she told the General Assembly that her membership operates at an average loss of $5,500 a year for each employee.
do not change state’s reimbursement to private agencies for employer-related taxes and other costs, according to Donna Martin, executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, an association of 26 agencies.
Last spring, she told the General Assembly that her membership operates at an average loss of $5,500 for each employee.
Because many agencies are not expanding their staff or accepting new clients, the parents of newly-eligible young adults increasingly are turning to so-called “self-directed” services, which allow them to design customized programs for their sons and daughters, a time-consuming process. The parents are responsible for organizing a program within their budget and choosing and supervising workers. A fiscal intermediary pays the bills.
BHDDH is encouraging these “self-directed” providers, as well as the established agencies, to apply for the one-time supported employment bonuses.
The next opportunity for consumers and families to speak to state officials about the consent decree and developmental disability services in general is Wednesday, Nov.9 from 4 to 6 p.m at the Cherry Hill Manor Nursing and Rehab Center, 2 Cherry Hill Rd., Johnston.
Judge McConnell has scheduled his next review of the consent decree for January 27 in U.S. District Court, Providence.
(The original version of this article inaccurately stated that recent raises to direct care workers did not include an increase for any aspect of employer-related costs.)