Judge in Disabilities Case to Mull Costly Sanctions Against RI

By Gina Macris

U.S. District Court Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. said May 2 he is prepared to take “swift and dramatic action” if the state of Rhode Island fails to adequately fund a 2014 consent decree intended to correct longstanding  violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

U.S. District Court RI

U.S. District Court RI

Nicole Kovite Zeitler, lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice, said she plans to file a formal request  asking the judge to order the state to contribute to a “consent decree compliance fund” unless adequate funding is secured by “a date certain” through the budgetary process, now underway in the General Assembly.

Neither Zeitler nor the judge put a specific dollar amount on the cost of the consent decree, although McConnell said he wants to see the money in Governor Gina Raimondo’s budget proposal enacted “at a minimum.”

Zeitler and the state’s lawyer, Marc DeSisto, will take one week to decide whether they can jointly submit a proposed order to McConnell, according to an informal schedule the judge approved from the bench.

If the two sides cannot work together, the DOJ will draft its own proposal. McConnell will hear arguments and then make a decision. The date of the next hearing has not yet been set.

The developmental disability system in Rhode Island has been underfunded for a decade, Zeitler said.

Moreover, she said she is concerned that the cost of the consent decree is being misrepresented in budgetary discussions. 

Families fear that the state is shutting sheltered workshops and providing nothing in their place, and “we share those concerns,” she said.

Zeitler, meanwhile, said the cost of the consent decree is being characterized in budget hearings at the State House as $1.8 million, but the consent decree requires changes throughout the developmental disability system.

The sum of $1.8 million happens to be one line item in the budget of the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) for subsidizing one-time start-up costs incurred by direct service providers who convert to community-based services from the segregated employment and day programs that the DOJ found in violation of the ADA.


Impact of Budget Plan Unclear

In the next 14 months, Raimondo wants to put an additional $24.1 million into private agencies that provide most of the direct services to adults with developmental disabilities, but whether her budget actually will achieve that goal remains open to question.

The way the budget document is now written, $19.3 million of that sum would come from savings in residential costs as occupants of group homes move into less costly shared living arrangements with individual families throughout the state. The proposal counts on 100 group home residents making the transition by June 30 on a strictly voluntary basis and another 200 moving in the next fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30, 2017.

In the last ten months, however, only 21 individuals have entered shared living arrangements, accounting for a projected savings of about $200,000 in the current fiscal year, according to BHDDH figures.

There are other uncertainties about the budget.

The independent monitor in the case, Charles Moseley, and the DOJ are looking for a reconfigured method of reimbursing service providers that would allow them flexibility to individualize community-based services while requiring that they meet performance targets.

The new reimbursement model would come with increased funding to the agencies, but BHDDH director Maria Montanaro told the Senate Finance Committee last week there isn’t enough money in the Governor’s budget plan to extend this methodology to all the service providers. Instead, Montanaro proposed a pilot program involving a “subset” of the service providers.

A spokeswoman for the provider agencies, Donna Martin, said she “respectfully disagreed” with Montanaro’s  approach. 

“If we target certain agencies (for pay hikes), we will not be able to recruit staff for any other program,”  said Martin, executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island (CPNRI) .

“We are facing an incredible staffing crisis,” she told the Senate Finance Committee.

 “Our staff are working minimum wage jobs. We are competing with McDonald’s” for workers, Martin said.

According to the current reimbursement rules, BHDDH pays service providers only for the time clients spend in direct contact with daytime support staff. That person-to-person interaction must be reported for each client and each worker, in 15-minute increments, throughout the day. Agencies are not paid when clients are absent, for whatever reason.

Job-scouting activities, in which a service provider might meet with a potential employer, are not part of the standard funding allocation package for individual clients.Clients who want employment supports must give up some hours in another category to get this funding. 

Until 2011, service providers received a set per-person allocation for a bundle of services that could be individualized, depending on a client’s needs.  Martin indicated that providers need a similarly flexible arrangement going forward to meet their obligations under terms of the consent decree.

Montanaro, meanwhile, said during the Senate Finance Committee meeting that a recent planning exercise came up with a $30 million price tag for applying a redesigned reimbursement model to all the service providers. She said that price tag was “impossible,” at a time when the department faced a $7 million deficit in the current budget.

Delays in Eligibility Decisions

Meanwhile, a backlog of applications for adult services that has caught the attention of the court could put additional strain on the budget that is not yet defined.

A BHDDH official told parents last week that there is a “very significant backlog” of pending applications for eligibility. At an average annual cost of $50,000 per client, an increase of 100 to the BHDDH caseload would add $5 million to the BHDDH budget.

BHDDH has been under pressure from the court to determine eligibility for young people promptly as they approach their 18th birthday, when they are defined by law as eligible for adult developmental disability services as long as they meet certain criteria.  

Since March, the Consent Decree Coordinator, Mary Madden, and other state officials have met with representatives of applicants for adult services who have experienced “inordinately long delays” in getting eligibility determinations as well as “receiving inadequate communication about the progress of their applications,” according to a report to the court submitted by the state last week.

“Those individual cases have been resolved,” the report said, but Madden told the court Monday the backlog still exists. She could not say how many applications are stuck in the pipeline.

Action Items Long Past Due

Many of the questions put to Madden and to Jennifer Wood, Deputy Secretary of the Executive Office of Human Services, had to do with pending consent decree action items that are long past due.

The state and the monitor were to have settled on a protocol for reporting compliance by Oct. 1, 2014, but it became common knowledge to dozens of individuals following the implementation of the consent decree that Moseley was having trouble getting access to BHDDH data throughout 2015.

Wood reported Monday that a confidential electronic data base allowing the monitor to track compliance according to each individual affected by the consent decree will go online in 2017, although an interim solution, in a quarterly report, will be available July 1.  

A Quality Improvement initiative was to have been launched by Nov. 1, 2014, but it is still waiting for the appointment of a quality improvement director. Funding for the position has been authorized. Each individual affected by the consent decree was to have an individual career development plan by Jan. 1 of this year, but those are not all in place.

The performance-based contracts that Montanaro said would be part of a new pilot reimbursement program with a portion of the service providers were to have been implemented system-wide by Jan. 1, 2015. 

A public education plan to explain the requirements and the philosophy of the consent decree was to have been up and running Sept. 1, 2014.

BHDDH officials submitted what they believed was the final version of the public education plan to the monitor on April 1, but Madden told the monitor Monday that “events of late have caused us to think how many more people need to be involved.”

She did not elaborate. BHDDH officials who hosted a “town hall” meeting with families and consumers in Warwick last week were met with a wave of hostile comments about the consent decree and disability services.