Hearing Highlights Two Systems of Care
By Gina Macris
Rhode Island’s developmental disabilities agency has sharply scaled back plans to move residents of group homes to less-expensive shared living arrangements, a strategy to free state money for measures required in a 2014 consent decree to remedy violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.
That information emerged at a RI House Finance subcommittee hearing Tuesday, April 12 on the budget of the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH).
The hearing by the Human Services subcommittee lasted more than three hours, covering public comments on behavioral healthcare, mental health, and state hospitals as well as developmental disabilities. Even at that length, some who came to testify did not have a chance to speak before the schedule was overtaken by another budget hearing that started late in the afternoon.
As a consequence, legislators did not hear about the 2014 consent decree under review in U.S. District Court. JudgeJohn J. McConnell, Jr. said on April 8 that he will hold the General Assembly responsible, if necessary, for funding reforms to integrate persons with disabilities in their communities as required by the ADA.
The hearing did draw comments highlighting differences between Rhode Island’s two systems of care for people with developmental disabilities: Care provided through private agencies and care provided through state-run group homes.
Representatives of private agencies that would provide most of the services required by the consent decree pressed for a provision in Governor Gina Raimondo’s budget plan that would providea wage increase of 45 cents an hour for workers who are so underpaid they must hold down two or three jobs to survive.
Union representatives for employees at state-run group homes, on the other hand, said that the plan to shift residents of group homes into shared living arrangements to provide more funding for the private agencies would come at the expense of their union jobs.
Shared Living Target Number Cut
In February, when Raimondo submitted a combined budget proposal for the remainder of the current fiscal year and the next one, ending June 30, 2017, she proposed transferring a total of 500 people, about 38 percent of all group home residents, into shared living.
On Tuesday, when a member of the House fiscal staff presented the BHDDH budget, the target number of 500 had been rolled back to 300 for the same 15-month period.
The original number had been widely described as very aggressive, especially in light of the fact that shared living is a mutual decision between the developmentally disabled individual and the private family that takes time to evolve, according to experts.
In the month of March, 10 people with disabilities moved from group homes to shared living, bringing the total number of individuals living in private homes to 288 statewide, according to Linda M. Haley, a member of the House fiscal staff.
BHDDH has budgeted a proposed 46 percent cut, or $15.5 million, to a system of 27 state-run group homes, with the current budget of about $33.2 million reduced to about $17.8 million in the next fiscal year, beginning July 1.
The group home population at the state-run homes, currently 180, would be cut in half, with 90 remaining at the end of the next fiscal year, according to budget detail presented by Haley of the fiscal staff.
Her presentation projected a total of $13 million in savings from group home residents in both the public and private system moving to shared living arrangements in the next fiscal year.
Rep. Eileen Naughton, D-Warwick, chair of the human services subcommittee, asked the mother of a man with autism living in a group home what she thought of shared living.
“I’m not a fan of it for my son,” said Robin Archambault. Besides autism, her son, Ryan, has a developmental disability and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she said.
Tory Flis, the manager of the home where Ryan Archambault lives, said “shared living is a wonderful level of support for some people, but it won’t work for everyone. “It has viability, but what is really needed is more person-centered services.”
Personal choice through an individualized plan of support is at the heart of the consent decree, which derives its authority from the 1999 Olmstead decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court affirmed the right of individuals with disabilities to live, work, and play in the least restrictive environment that is appropriate.
Crisis in Staffing Direct Services
The direct support staff at the private agencies who would carry out the requirements of the consent decree are paid an average of about $11.55 an hour, according to the state’s figures.
Tom Kane, a spokesman for 23 private agencies providing most of the direct care in Rhode Island, told the legislators that employees now average $10.77 an hour. At those wages, the workers must hold down two and three jobs to make ends meet, according to Kane, group home manager Flis, and others in the field.
Archambault, the mother of the man with autism, said the high turnover “saddens me.” The workers “are getting burned out” and leaving, she said. “As a parent, this scares me.”
Kane, who is executive director of Access Point RI, said a living wage for a parent with one child at home is nearly $22 an hour. Among the developmental disability agencies, 48 percent of employees qualify for public assistance, and there’s a 33 percent turnover rate, he said. With each replacement, agencies put in about $5,000 in training, he said.
Kane said the state reimbursement rate is so low that the private agencies operate at a loss of $5,700 a year for each person on the payroll because the state does not cover the full amount of employer-related taxes and benefits.
Governor Raimondo’s proposed 45- cent hourly wage increase for direct service staff is “very generous,” Kane said, “I still believe it is insufficient.” With the raise, agencies would still operate at a loss for each person they employ, although it would be reduced to about $4,500 a year, he said.
“In Rhode Island, like the rest of the country, there is a real crisis” in providing direct service for people with developmental disabilities, he said.
“As was stated earlier,” Kane said, “you can go to a fast food restaurant and make more money. Why would you not want to do that?”
“We are basically flat-funded where we were in 2006,” Kane said.
“We have had positive work experiences with this administration,” he said, referring to BHDDH director Maria Montanaro and her deputies.
“We ask that you support the Governor’s budget” and add “any other money you can find” to alleviate the crisis in the developmental disability service system, Kane said.
State Employees Fear for Their Jobs
Jim Cenerini, legislative affairs coordinator for Rhode Island Council 94 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, spoke for nearly 300 state employees who staff the state-run group homes.
He said the proposed cut of nearly 50 percent of the state group home budget has created a great deal of unease among workers fearful they may lose their jobs. “I’m not sure how this is happening without closure of a group home or layoffs,” he said.
“We support the private providers, but this looks like it would destroy our capacity to provide care,” Cenerini said.
He said higher costs in the state-run homes reflect the needs of patients who are generally older and tend to be more medically compromised than in the private system, but costs also reflect “former Ladd employees who have strong union representation.”
He said BHDDH has not explained to the union how the proposed budget cut would play out.
In response to a reporter’s question shortly after Raimondo announced her budget proposal, BHDDH officials said that RICLAS employees displaced by group home residents moving to shared living would be able to transfer to vacant jobs.
Cenerini said BHDDH wanted to move all residents of state-run facilities into the private system last year, but the union negotiated two cost-cutting agreements instead. The state never acted fully on those agreements, he said.
“We are willing to make efficiencies, but we have to have an honest partner,” he said.