Governor's Budget Would Add Total of $10 million For Developmental Disabilities Through June, 2018

By Gina Macris

A new $6.8-million incentive program, intended to encourage service providers to help Rhode Islanders with developmental disabilities get and keep jobs, will become a permanent fixture of the annual budget, according to Jennifer Wood, Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services.

That is one of several areas of Governor Gina Raimondo’s budget proposal that indicates the state is moving to increase services for individuals with developmental disabilities in keeping with a 2014 consent decree, which requires Rhode Island to expand their access to employment and other community activity over a ten-year period.  

Wood and other key officials, who are involved in reinventing the state’s developmental disability service system, elaborated on Raimondo’s proposed budget and the way it reflects evolving trends and programs during an hour-long interview with Developmental Disability News on Jan. 24. 

Between now and the end of the next fiscal year, which concludes June 30, 2018, Raimondo proposes to increase spending for developmental disability services by about $10 million, excluding restricted funds and capital expenses.

Of that total, $6 million in federal and state Medicaid funds would be used for five-percent increases to the average wages of direct support workers, and much of the rest would reflect more expensive levels of services needed by individuals with developmental disabilities than have been recognized in the past.

Overall, Raimondo asked the General Assembly to increase the current allocation for developmental disability services by nearly $4.4 million in this fiscal year, which ends in June, from about $246.2 million to $250.6 million.

Excluding restricted and capital accounts, the added amount available for services before June 30 would be nearly $3.8 million, according to a budget breakdown provided by EOHHS. In the budget cycle which ends in June, 2018, the Governor would add a total of about about $6.1 million, for $256.7 million in all spending on developmental disability services. Excluding the restricted and capital funds, the increase would be about $6.6 million.  

All Funds vs Operating Budget

 TABLE COURTESY OF EOHHS

TABLE COURTESY OF EOHHS

    GR=state funds     FF= federal funds

The primary reasons that developmental disability services are expected to be more costly include:

  •  The need for a better-paid, more stable workforce, funded with a 5 percent increases in direct care wages, or a total of $6 million 
  • · Additional staff time spent on job hunting and job support for their clients, reflected in the new $6.8 million individualized supported employment program that is already part of approved spending
  • A new version of the process for assessing individual needs appears to indicate that more supports are required than have been recognized in the past.

Supported Employment Program Has Begun Operations

Until now, all individuals with developmental disabilities who sought help in finding jobs in the community had to give up other kinds of services, with the dollar value of their personal funding authorizations remaining the same. But those enrolled in the new “person-centered” supported employment program, now accepting applicants, will get job support in addition to their other services, according to an EOHHS spokeswoman. The program is expected to involve about 200 clients.

The supported employment program was funded by the General Assembly with a $6.8 million allocation for the current fiscal year. But that sum has been untouched while the state has figured out how the program will work.

The program is poised to make its first disbursements to service providers, including incentive payments for the placement of two individuals in jobs in January. said Tracey Cunningham, Chief Employment Specialist in the Division of Disabilities at the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH).

The original $6.8 million allocation is expected to fund the incentive program into the second half of the fiscal year ending in June, 2018, according to an EOHHS spokeswoman.

The program staff will evaluate the results of the first operational year to determine how much money it will need to continue, said Brian Gosselin, the Chief Strategy Officer at EOHHS. Wood promised assured continuous funding for the program.

“What we hope to learn in the first 12 months of this brand new program is what impact $6.8 million will have,” Gosselin said. It provides one-time incentive payments when staff complete a specific training program and clients are placed in jobs. The program also pays bonuses for employment retention, in two installments, after 90 and 180 days.  

Gosselin said he and his colleagues will determine whether the $6.8 million allocation was enough and will identify the successful features of the program that can be used in the second year.

He and Wood were asked why the 22 providers participating in the program must continue to use a fee-for-service reimbursement model which requires them to bill for daytime services in 15-minute increments.

Gosselin said that is the funding model that the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services has approved for daytime developmental disability services in Rhode Island.

“In order to make any adjustments to that methodology we would have to go through a very long approval process with the federal government,” he said.

But he emphasized that the new performance-based aspect of the incentive program is “what we hope to learn from.”

A discussion of the fee-for-service model and whether it works for Rhode Island is part of a larger conversation – redesigning and renewing the state’s Medicaid waiver, which is expected to occur in 2018, Gosselin said.

Wood emphasized that she didn’t want to conflate two things. “One is Medicaid billing” and the other is “programmatic contracting,” she said.

“What we set forth to do was to create the first instance in Rhode Island of performance-based contracting for outcome-based services provided to individuals with developmental disabilities. We are super-excited about that,” she said. “That’s a whole new direction for this world.”

Wood also elaborated on the design and roll-out of supported employment in the context of a U.S. District Court order reinforcing the 2014 consent decree, which had set an Aug. 1 deadline for implementation of the performance-based supported employment program.

“Implementation is an ongoing activity,” Wood said. “We met the requirements of the Court order by filing with the monitor and the Court and the DOJ (U.S. Department of Justice) the programmatic requirements” for the supported employment services program last summer, Wood said. The “person-centered” program is designed to put the needs and preferences of the client at the center of the job-hunting and support process.

Since the summer, state officials have met with providers, drawn up contracts and finalized them, she said. The next phase of implementation is enrolling clients, Wood said.

“We are actually quite proud of the fact that we can bring this program up in what in government circles is lightning speed,” she said, “and to do it in a really reliable, viable, and responsible way.”  .

“I know it may not appear that way to the public,” Wood said.  She apparently alluded to public criticism of the program, which was not completely fleshed out when it was first presented to providers in November and was not widely understood by families who direct individualized services for a loved one.

Wage Increase Intended to Help Stabilize Workforce

Governor Raimondo’s proposed $6 million for wage increases for direct care workers would provide about 5 percent more in the hourly rate, before taxes, in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

For the current fiscal year, the General Assembly approved about $5 million for a pay raise which boosted the average hourly rate from $10.82 to $11.18.   Another 5 percent would raise the average hourly rate by 56 cents to $11.74.

Governor Raimondo’s latest proposal also would provide an increase for employer-related costs for direct care workers, Wood said. 

Raimondo had been asked to include another pay increase for direct care workers in her budget plan from State Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, First Vice Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

DiPalma said in a recent telephone interview that he considers Raimondo’s wage proposal for Fiscal 2018 the first step in a five-year effort to raise direct care salaries to $15 an hour.

In the meantime, the minimum wage may well be on the rise as well. The Governor’s budget proposal would increase it from $9.60 to $10.50, while Rep. Leonidas P. Raptakis, (D- Coventry, West Greenwich, and East Greenwich) has countered with a $10 minimum wage bill.

 DiPalma was asked whether a $15 hourly rate would be enough for the direct care workers in five years.

He said he plans to introduce legislation this year to link the wages of direct care workers to the consumer price index.

“We can’t tie the hands of future legislatures,” by committing them to specific dollar amounts in advance, DiPalma said.

“It’s a case of wanting people to have an appreciation for the intent of what we want to do” in placing value on the work of those who care for some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, he said.  

A spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services said DiPalma and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva Weed, who backs the so-called “15 in 5” plan, “have been important partners in advocating for investments in our direct care workforce.”

“We look forward to working with our partners in the General Assembly to implement our second wage increase this year, as well as increases over multiple years as possible,” said the spokeswoman, Sophie O'Connell.

A year ago, a conference hosted by the Sherlock Center on Disabilities at Rhode Island College concluded that higher wages are a critical component in stabilizing the direct care workforce nationwide. In Rhode Island, the average annual turnover is about one third, according to the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island. That means that an adult with developmental disabilities, who relies on a good relationship with caregivers, can expect that every year, one out of every three staffers will  to the job.

Revised Individual Assessment Suggests Greater Cost

Unexpected  increases in billing from private service providers, as well as higher projections for future costs, would add an additional $5 million to federal and state-funded Medicaid-services for existing clients in the current fiscal year, according to the Governor's budget brief. (Some of that net increase would be offset by other savings.) 

In November, the Division of Developmental Disabilities began using an updated version of an assessment called the Supports Intensity Scale (SIS) in determining the needs of individual clients. Those assessments are used to assign individual funding authorizations for support services.

“I personally am really thrilled” over the implementation of the new version, called the SIS-A, Wood said. “I know all my colleagues in government feel the same way about it.”

She acknowledged that “there have been all sorts of questions in the past about the validity and reliability of the state’s approach to implementing the SIS.”

And it’s an emotional topic because it’s not just an evaluation, but one linked to funding supports for a loved one, she said.

Since the SIS was implemented in 2011, time-consuming appeals of the results and the corresponding funding levels have become common, and appeals were often granted.

In 2014, the DOJ criticized the way the SIS was being implemented in the findings that laid the groundwork for the consent decree.

“The need to keep consumers’ resource allocations within budget may influence staff to administer the SIS in a way that reaches the pre-determined budgetary result,” the DOJ said at the time. 

In the recent interview, Wood said, “We feel much more comfortable and confident about the validity” of the SIS-A.

As it has been explained to her by the experts, she said, the new versions include refined questions that address some of the more complex needs that “people did not feel were being captured in the original version.”

Wood indicated that in general, higher scores on the SIS-A have  prompted developmental disability service officials to project higher individual funding authorizations. 

Apart from three new questions asking whether a client has hypertension, allergies or diabetes, the SIS-A adopts a risk assessment which includes five overarching questions with multiple parts intended to gauge critical health needs, self-injurious behavior or community safety issues. The questions on the risk assessment were released by the Division of Developmental Disabilities in the last week. Professionals say that with proper support, such risks can be overcome.

A lot of effort already has gone into retraining interviewers, Wood said, although “it will take us two to three years to find our way fully in this new assessment.”

Heather Mincey, social services administrator in the Division of Developmental Disabilities, said the training program has addressed the way interviewers ask questions. The Division of Developmental Disabilities is trying to be responsive to families, clients, and service providers who may not feel like they’re being heard or are unsure what kind of information the interviewer is trying to elicit, she said.

At the same, the Division of Developmental Disabilities is continuing an initiative begun a year ago to save about $1.7 million in Medicaid funding, including almost  $846,000 in state funds, from existing individual funding authorizations that exceed levels indicated in past SIS assessments.

There were so many complaints about the SIS in the latter part of 2014 and the first months of 2015 that BHDDH suspended an effort to rein in the exceptions in the fiscal year that ran from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016.  But the initiative to  to reduce those exceptions resumed for the current fiscal year, which began last July.

Wood said that budget figures for the current fiscal year and the one ending June 30, 2018, twice listing $845,750 in savings from realignment of individual funding authorizations, don’t represent a new initiative, but a continuation of the one already underway.

The appeal process remains an option for those who disagree with their allocations.

A new policy enacted by the state last July to respond to a judicial order says that all SIS assessments will be based solely on support needs. It also says that only the Director of Developmental Disabilities has the authority to grant authorizations that exceed SIS levels. Until now, appeals have been decided by a team of administrators.

Wood and other state officials have said they hope the SIS-A will result in a reduction in the number of appeals.