By Gina Macris
There is “no quick fix” to the waiting list that will kick in for Rhode Islanders with the most extensive disabilities who apply for supports from the Office of Rehabilitation Services (ORS) after Dec. 1, according Ronald Racine, head of the state's jemployment rehab services.
Because of restricted federal funds for rehabilitation services to Rhode Island, the waiting list is expected to grow to 2,620 individuals in a year’s time, although those now receiving services will not be affected.
About ten to 15 percent of future applications are expected to come from individuals with developmental disabilities, based on the current caseload. ORS currently serves 3,621 individuals with very significant, or “first priority” disabilities, including those with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
Racine, Associate Director of the Division of Community Services at the state Department of Human Services, said Nov. 22 that ORS might reduce the time anyone spends on the waiting list by collaborating with other state agencies, like the Department of Labor and Training or the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals.
Racine spoke at a public hearing at the Warwick Public Library Nov. 21 that he said was a pre-requisite to amending a federally-mandated state plan to formally create the waiting list under provisions of the Workforce Investment and Opportunities Act.
The trigger for the waiting list is a dramatic restriction in so-called federal vocational rehabilitation “reallocation” funds awarded by the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA), part of the U.S. Department of Education. In the past several years, these reallocation funds have averaged about $3.6 million, according to ORS officials.
For the federal fiscal year that began Oct. 1, Rhode Island sought $5 million in reallocation funds, but was awarded only $532,000.
While some of those attending the hearing asked what could be done to advocate for the restoration of the funds, Racine explained that this reallocation money is not Rhode Island’s to start with.
Rhode Island still receives a regular grant award under provisions of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act - $10.4 million for the latest federal fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, according to Racine.
But he explained that the reallocation money comes from states that must return funding to the federal government because they did not put up sufficient state dollars to support vocational rehabilitation. That pool of money is then reallocated by the RSA at its discretion to the other states.
This year, the RSA said it gave Texas all $33 million in reallocation funding it requested because of the impact of Hurricane Harvey. Racine told those attending the public hearing that the reallocation process was completed before Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, and he anticipated that the island would dominate in the next round of reallocation funding. That would mean a waiting list for vocational rehabilitation services would continue in Rhode Island, Racine said.
He said that ORS has been using reallocation money to support clients who are protected by a 2014 federal consent decree requiring the state to give adults with developmental disabilities greater access to regular jobs in the community.
ORS has notified the U.S. Department of Justice and a federal court monitor of the change in funding, and the resulting waiting list, Racine said at the Nov. 21 hearing. Neither the monitor nor the DOJ has commented in response, he said.
Separately, ORS faces the loss of $300,000 in federal funding earmarked for supported employment services. Supported employment services, like job coaching, also can be provided through the overall $10.4 million federal grant to ORS, according to Joseph Murphy, assistant administrator for supported employment.
In a telephone interview Nov. 22, Racine elaborated. He said that the loss of federal supported employment funds does not directly impact an ORS pilot program that complements a similar project operated by the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH.)
ORS’ performance-based pilot program involves about 50 clients, with the last ones due to finish their program year in April, according to Murphy, who explained that they did not all begin at the same time.
Racine further explained that some changes may be made to supported employment services as a result of the performance-based program, but these would be programmatic rather than financial.
Exempt from any waiting list are about 520 high school special education students who have not applied for vocational rehabilitation services but who nevertheless are entitled to federally-mandated pre-employment and transition services.
These services include job exploration and internships, training in social and other skills necessary to prepare for the workplace, help with the skills of independent living, and counseling on opportunities for more comprehensive transition programs or post-secondary education, Racine said.
At the hearing, members of the State Rehabilitation Council, among others, expressed their concerns about the impending waiting list.
Willa Truelove, the Council chairperson, and Catherine Sansonetti, who is also a staff attorney at the RI Disability Law Center, both said the waiting list should be made public and that such transparency could help document the need for services.
Racine said the numbers on the waiting list can be put on the ORS Facebook page, but the names will be kept private.
(Click here to read an earlier article on the waiting list that has been corrected and clarified.).