Judge Says RI General Assembly Shares Responsibility for Implementing Decree

By Gina Macris

Key elements of Rhode Island’s compliance with a federal consent decree aimed at correcting violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act depend on funding that has not yet materialized.

The funding issue surfaced repeatedly during day-long testimony April 8 before U.S. District Court Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. who is overseeing compliance with the consent decree, signed in April, 2014.

 Officials who took the witness stand referred often to two items in Governor Gina Raimondo’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year:  $5 million for wage increases to staff who provide direct care to the developmentally disabled and nearly $1.9 million for enhanced services to help a target group of about 75 people get jobs and gain access to non-work activities in their communities.

 Jennifer Wood, deputy secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said, “My task is to ensure that when the legislature goes home in July, that budget is intact.”

To which McConnell responded:  “I hope the legislature understands it is equally as responsible as the Governor for compliance. The Court will take action against whoever in government fails to fund it,” he said.

Wood said she would be sure to convey the message.

On Tuesday April 12, the House Finance Committee is expected to hear the budget proposal for the agency principally responsible for implementing of the consent decree, the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH).

Nicole Kovite Zeitler, a lawyer for the Department of Justice, contested the assertion the state made in an April 1 status report that it is in “substantial compliance” with the consent decree. The decree resulted from DOJ’s investigation of sheltered workshops that employed people with developmental disabilities at sub-minimum wage.

Any increase in the number of people with developmental disabilities who have gotten jobs in the last two years has not been the result of any state efforts, Zeitler said.

Rather, “if people are working it’s because job coaches and families work really hard” to help them, Zeitler said.

“The system will be at a standstill until a rate redesign allows employers to actually pay direct service providers a living wage,” she told the judge.

A redesign of the reimbursement rates to private agencies is one of several compliance efforts that the state has in the planning stages, although those talks have been going on for nearly a year, according to A. Anthony Antosh, director of the Sherlock Center at Rhode Island College. The Sherlock Center provides technical assistance and guidance to BHDDH on implementing the consent decree.

None of the testimony in federal court on April 8 made it clear how much money it would cost to overhaul the current reimbursement rate system or whether Raimondo’s budget proposal to increase funding is enough to accommodate such a change.

Antosh, however, said that the state is spending about $15,000 for each person with a developmental disability who attends a segregated day program, about half what it costs for job coaching and other community-based services.

Zeitler noted that funding letters that go out to individuals with disabilities do not say anything about employment-related services. Rather the letters list other categories of services and the associated funding.

“They need to cash in their hours for day services to buy employment services,” Zeitler said.  Moreover, the rate for job-related services is twice as much as for day services, she said. 

“That’s why we need to move to a different system,” said Wood, the deputy secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

Zeitler said that the consent decree requires individuals have meaningful options for community integration no later than their 18th birthdays.

Wood said “that is occurring, but sometimes there’s a delay in the handoff.”

McConnell, however, referred to a statement filed with the court by the Rhode Island Disability Law Center, which said clients had experienced delays in obtaining services up to a year after their 21st birthdays.

Wood said she was troubled by that statement, and had asked staff to follow up.

“I am not in any way saying that is acceptable,” she said.

She said it is not state policy to begin adult services at age 21, but “it takes time for practice to meet policy.” (State law says persons with developmental disabilities become eligible for adult services at age 18.)

Wood testified extensively about efforts at high-level interdepartmental coordination, especially when it came to generating data for the purposes of complying with the consent decree. In fact, Wood herself emailed the most recent set of figures to DOJ lawyers after midnight the night before the hearing.

Lawyers for the DOJ and Charles Moseley, the court monitor for the consent decree, have been pressing for an accurate census of the population covered by the consent decree as a pre-requisite for determining whether the state is meeting its compliance targets on a continuing basis.

At the end of the day, Zeitler and Moseley said they still need time to figure out whether the latest head count - about 400 more than the 3,000 reported last week - was accurate and unduplicated.

Wood said a chief problem in gathering the data was that young people and adults with developmental disabilities may receive services from one to three agencies that for decades have not shared confidential information with each other.

But in the past few months, Wood said, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services has coordinated a push to change that practice. “We are now one big happy data family,” she said.

Going forward, Zeitler said, the DOJ will be watching to see whether the state fulfills its promises, like having an improved reimbursement structure in place for private service providers by July 1. 

McConnell’s next review of the case is scheduled for May 2.

“For whatever it took,” McConnell told Zeitler, “it looks like you got people’s attention. I hope you don’t lose that, either in the short run or the long run,” he said.