RI House Finance Chairman Asks Whether DD Services Really Need Money; Gets Emphatic Yes in Reply

Maureen Gaynor uses assistive technology to testify before the Rhode Island House Finance Committee May 26. She says people with disabilities want the same thing everyone else does; a job, a role in their communities, and purpose in their lives. To her left is Lisa Rafferty, executive director of Bridges, a disability service provider.

By Gina Macris

Rhode Island’s developmental disability agency needs more revenue in the next fiscal year because it will not come close to saving a target of $16.2 million in group home expenses, the agency’s director, Maria Montanaro, told the House Finance Committee in a hearing May 26.

Montanaro emphasized that after eight years of cost-cutting in the developmental disability budget, the state now needs to add revenue to ensure that Rhode Island residents who live with intellectual challenges get the Medicaid-funded services to which they are entitled by law.

The Committee chairman, Rep Marvin L. Abney, (D-Newport), wasn’t necessarily convinced by Montanaro’s testimony, asking rhetorically, “Is money really the problem?” 

 ABNEY                                          Image by Capitol TV

ABNEY                                          Image by Capitol TV

“We’re going on and on and on and on,” Abney said. “I’ll leave you with this thought. It’s not a question, but we are concerned,  is money really the problem? When we’re talking about efficiencies to the system, is money always the answer to that? You don’t need to respond, but just think of that as a director,” he said.

Montanaro did not reply, but other witnesses did say a lack of money is a key factor in ongoing federal court oversight of the state’s compliance with a two-year-old consent degree in which Rhode Island agreed to bring its disabilities services in line with the Americans With Disabilities At (ADA).

The agreement, with the U.S. Department of Justice, requires the state to enable more persons with disabilities to work in regular jobs, rather than in “sheltered workshops.” The decree also requires the state to help persons with disabilities participate in other community-based activities.

In an order issued May 18, Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. laid out 22 short-term deadlines the state must meet. Missing even one of them could trigger a contempt of court hearing. If the state is found in contempt, the judge would require the state to pay a minimum of $1,000 a day for violations of the consent decree, or as much as $1 million a year.  

The first requirement in McConnell’s order is that “the State will appropriate the additional money contained in the Governor’s budget for fiscal 2017 in order to fund compliance with the Consent Decree.”

The subject of the House Finance Committee’s hearing was Governor Gina Raimondo’s proposed budget amendments for the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH),  for 2016-2017 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

In all, Raimondo has requested $18.7 million in added revenue for developmental disabilities, offset by an accounting shift of $1.8 million in home health aide services from BHDDH to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

Also on the table is a proposal for about $6.8 million in additional appropriations in the current fiscal year to address a current budget deficit in developmental disabilities. 

If the General Assembly approves the supplemental appropriation, the bottom line in BHDDH’s Division of Developmental Disabilities would increase from $230.9 million to $237.7 million before June 30. Raimondo’s request for an additional $16.9 million in the coming fiscal year would push the overall disabilities budget up to $254.6 million, with about half that amount coming from state coffers. 

In fiscal 2016-2017, Raimondo seeks to make up $10.2 million of the $16.2 million she originally envisioned saving in reduced group home costs.

The governor also wants an additional $9.2 million in funding to raise salaries for staff who work with adults with intellectual challenges, or $4.1 million more than she asked for in February. 

In addition:

  • $180,000 would be set aside for an ombudsperson to protect the rights of persons with developmental disabilities
  • ·4.4 million would be restored to the BHDDH budget to prevent the inadvertent loss of professional services like occupational and physical therapy for some persons with developmental disabilities.

All the money comes from Medicaid, with a roughly dollar-for-dollar match in federal and state spending.

Montanaro, the BHDDH director, said adequate funding of developmental disabilities in the next budget would prevent BHDDH from running a deficit every year.

The developmental disability caseload, 4,000 to 4200 annually, also should be included in calculations of the state’s semi-annual Revenue and Caseload Estimating Conference to prevent unexpected surprises in the budget, she said. 

 Montanaro                                                               Image by Capitol TV

Montanaro                                                               Image by Capitol TV

The twice-yearly conference is a forum for top fiscal advisors to the Governor, the House and the Senate to reach consensus on the state’s revenues and Medicaid caseload expenses for the coming budget year.  

Montanaro said the $9.1 million in raises for direct care workers are necessary to satisfy the consent decree.

Without being able to offer higher pay, the private agencies that provide most of the direct services won’t be able to re-direct their efforts toward supporting their clients in jobs as the consent decree requires, Montanaro explained.

Workers make an average of about $11.50 an hour, often less than the clients they support in jobs in fast food restaurants, according to testimony at the hearing.

BHDDH originally counted on achieving $16.2 million in savings in the next fiscal year by convincing hundreds of group home residents to move into less expensive shared living arrangements with individual families, Montanaro said.

However, that effort has encountered resistance by individuals and families who find safety and security in group home living, she said.

Since BHDDH began what Montanaro described as a “full court press” on shared living at the beginning of this year, 10 group home residents have moved into private homes with host families, according to BHDDH statistics.

There are now 288 adults with developmental disabilities in shared living – an option that has been available for a decade in Rhode Island – and about 1300 persons living in group homes in Rhode Island.

 Tobon                                                           Image by Capitol TV 

Tobon                                                           Image by Capitol TV 

When Montanaro originally testified in January about the plan to shift to shared living, it was in the context of closing a projected $6 million deficit in the current fiscal year.

Recalling that testimony, Rep. Carlos E. Tobon, (D-Pawtucket), a Finance Committee member, said he had been “really concerned” about the timetable.

“You had to sit over there and pretty much, not  convince us, but tell us that this is what you were going to do,” Tobon said. “What was your confidence in actually achieving that?”

“I think I was very clear with the committee that it was a very aggressive approach,” Montanaro replied.

“But the problem, Representative, that I want you to understand, is that we are mandated by (state) law to come up with a corrective action plan” to close a budget deficit, she said.

The choice was either to continue the eight-year pattern of cutting benefits or eligibility, while the federal court watched “the crumbling of that system,” Montanaro said, or to try to get savings by encouraging persons with disabilities to move into more integrated living arrangements.

Montanaro described it as a “Sophie’s Choice,” a dramatic allusion to a forced decision being forced to decide between two terrible options.

 “We knew we might have to come back and tell you our actual experience with that,” she said alluding to the fact that the short-term shared living effort has fallen far short of the goal.

 A gradual shift toward shared living is in keeping with a broad, long-range federal mandate to desegregate services for individuals with a variety of disabilities, but it does not address the Rhode Island consent decree, Montanaro said.

 
In the past several months, as the federal court watched BHDDH spending nearly all its efforts to try to save more money instead of working on the employment requirements of the consent decree, Montanaro said, the judge and the court monitor in the case became “very worried.”

The monitor, Charles Moseley, has said that timing is critical.

Unless the state meets certain benchmarks now, Moseley has said in reports to the court, it will not be able to fulfill the long-range requirements of the consent decree, which calls for a ten-year, system-wide shift from segregated to integrated day time supports for adults with developmental disabilities to comply with the ADA. The decree, signed April 8, 2014, expires Jan. 1, 2024. 

Montanaro said that concerns of the monitor and the judge over the state’s emphasis on cost-cutting instead of the consent decree requirements prompted a recent court order that spells out conditions under which Rhode Island could be fined as much as $1 million this year for contempt. 

In her testimony before the House Finance Committee, Montanaro drove home her point.

“The last thing I’ll say about it is that we really can’t afford to direct all of our departmental activity toward an effort that isn’t actually the effort that the consent decree is obligating us to pay the most close attention to, which is the employment issue,” Montanaro said.

“Judge McConnell and the court monitor want to see the state of Rhode Island make the necessary financial investments in transforming the system, and you can’t transform everything at once,” she said, alluding to Moseley’s concerns about timing.

Montanaro continued to explain, but that’s when Abney, the committee chairman, interrupted, asking his rhetorical question: “Is money really the problem?” 

Later in a hearing that lasted nearly two hours, Tom Kane, CEO of a private service agency, and Kevin Nerney, associate director of the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council, each told Abney that “it is about the money.”

Nerney said, “Whether I think it’s about money, or whether anyone else thinks it’s about money, there’s a federal court judge that thinks it’s about money, and the Department of Justice does, as well.”

Kane, CEO of AccessPoint RI, said “The reason the DOJ is here is a money problem,” he said. “We have jobs available for people (with disabilities) waiting to work,” he said, but providers of developmental disability services can’t hire the support staff “to make that happen,” he said.

Of 77 job applicants at AccessPoint RI during the month of April, 35 refused a job offer because of the low pay, Kane said. “They tell me they can make more sitting home collecting” unemployment benefits, he said.

 Serpa                                                  Image by RI Capitol TV 

Serpa                                                  Image by RI Capitol TV 

As he has testified at previous State House hearings on the developmental disabilities budget, Kane said private service providers operate at an average loss of about $5,000 a year for each person they employ. 

Rep. Patricia A. Serpa, (D-West Warwick, Coventry and Warwick), asked whether executives of developmental disability agencies have received raises while their workers have been paid low wages in recent years.

Kane said he gave all AccessPoint RI employees a 3 percent raise in January, the first time since 2006. At the start of the 2011-2012 fiscal year, after the General Assembly voted to cut $24 million from the developmental disabilities budget, everyone took a 7.5 percent pay cut, he said.

Donna Martin, executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, CPNRI, said all the member agencies that cut pay that year started at the top.

A review of IRS reports from organizations exempt from taxes shows that executives of developmental disability agencies with budgets less than $5 million make 25 percent less than those of other non-profit agencies in Rhode Island, Martin said.

In developmental disability agencies with budgets greater than $5 million, the executives make 30 percent less than those of other non-profit organizations in the state, she said.

Kane, meanwhile, asked the committee to think of the governor’s budget proposal as a “jobs request.”

 KanE                                                    ImAge by Capitol TV 

KanE                                                    ImAge by Capitol TV 

Kane submitted a copy of research done by the University of Massachusetts Amherst which indicates that every million dollars invested in disability services in Rhode Island creates a total of 25 jobs. Based on that research, Kane said later, the $9 million Raimondo has requested to raise pay for direct care workers would translate into a total of 225 jobs.

Kane also said the state should “braid” funding from BHDDH with the Office of Rehabilitation Services of the state Department of Human Services (ORS) to fund “employment teams” that would be more effective than the two agencies working separately to try to do the same thing.

That idea came out of recent discussions between state officials and private agencies about a system-wide redesign of services, Kane said.

Bob Cooper, executive secretary of the Governor’s Commission on Disabilities, said he would add the state Department of Labor and Training (DLT) as another “braid” in Kane’s analogy.

Federal rehabilitation dollars channeled through DLT reimburse the state 78 cents for every dollar the state spends; a better deal than the 50-50 match from the Medicaid program, he said.

The federally-funded Disability Employment Initiative, a workforce development demonstration grant run by DLT, “was making a difference” before the grant ended and the program shut down March 30, Cooper said.

If the state is to comply with the consent decree, disability-related job supports involving BHDDH and ORS must be merged with DLT, the state’s primary economic development agency, Cooper said.