By Gina Macris
Despite tense negotiations around a $134-million projected revenue shortfall in Rhode Island for the next fiscal year, the House Finance Committee has approved an $11-million increase in federal and state funds to provide raises for direct care workers supporting adults with developmental disabilities and home health care aides in the next fiscal year.
Early the morning of June 16, The House Finance Committee sent an overall $9.2-billion spending package to the full House, which is expected to vote Thursday, June 22.
The Finance Committee’s revised budget also includes $3.4 million a year for two years to restore free bus passes for the elderly and disabled. Since Feb. 1, low-income elderly and disabled riders on the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority (RIPTA) have had to pay 50 cents each trip, and 25 cents for each transfer. During the next two years, the executive branch of government is to figure out a permanent solution to ensure that vulnerable Rhode Islanders have access to public transportation.
According to a House spokeswoman, the proposed budget adopts Governor Gina Raimondo’s request for raises for home health and direct care workers who support some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, shouldering great responsibilities for poverty-level pay.
The Governor’s budget plan included $6.2 million — $3 million in state revenue and $3.2 million in federal Medicaid funds — for raises of about 5 percent for direct care employees of private agencies that provide most of the supports for adults with developmental disabilities. Another $4.4 million –$2.2 million from state revenue and the rest from Medicaid – will raise the pay of home health care aides by 7 percent.
Assuming that the raises pass the House and Senate, some 4,000 developmental disability workers will see increases in their paychecks of about 55 cents an hour, before taxes, sometime before Oct. 1. They now make an average of $11.14 an hour, according to a trade association representing about two thirds of some three dozen agencies operating in Rhode Island.
The latest incremental boost in pay would mark the second consecutive year that home health aides and developmental disability workers would have received wage increases, although there appears to be a growing opinion in both the House and Senate that direct care workers remain woefully underpaid for the job they do.
Last fall, State Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, launched a call for this year’s raises as the initial phase of a “15 in 5” campaign that would elevate direct care workers’ pay to at least $15 an hour in five years; by July 1, 2021. A resolution to that effect has passed the Senate Finance Committee, of which DiPalma is vice chairman.
Members of the House have proposed various bills or resolutions to reach that $15 mark sooner, or to ask the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to raise direct care workers’ pay by 28.5 percent to achieve parity with Connecticut and Massachusetts rates by October of this year. Those measures appear to have died in committee.
In hearings in both the House and Senate during the current session, however, legislators have heard testimony that Rhode Island has a tough time competing with Connecticut and Massachusetts for direct care workers, because those states are such an easy commute for many Rhode Islanders.
The House Commission on Vulnerable Populations has included a recommendation that the state strive for direct care wages that are competitive with neighboring states in its final report on its deliberations for the last several months.
During a recent meeting on a draft report, Commission chairman Jeremiah O’Grady, D-Lincoln, the Deputy Majority Leader, said it is clear that salaries for direct care workers have a relationship to quality of care and employee turnover.
“What we see are the most qualified employees going to other states,” he said, and “we hear about very high turnover rates – something like 60 percent – within the first six months” in Rhode Island.
Another factor that will undoubtedly have a bearing on future discussions of direct care pay is that the House Finance Committee agreed to phase in a 90-cent increase in the minimum wage, now $9.60 an hour. That rate would increase 50 cents, to $10.10 an hour, Jan. 1, 2018, and another 40 cents, to $10.50 an hour, on Jan. 1, 2019. That means that the pay of direct care workers will continue to hover around minimum wage or a little higher.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts has committed to raising its rates for direct care workers to $15 in 2018.
Complete figures on the developmental disability budget were not immediately available.But on June 19, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) said that Governor Raimondo got all she asked for in developmental disability spending from the House Finance Committee except for $200,000 in supplements to the current fiscal year and an equal amount in the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Last July 1, the state Division of Developmental Disabilities started the current fiscal year with an enacted budget of more than $246 million. Raimondo’s total request for fiscal 2018, beginning July 1, was $256.7 million.
Apart from the raises for direct care workers, the Division of Developmental Disabilities has sought funds to cover an estimated deficit of $3.6 million in the existing budget because of supplemental payments needed to respond to successful appeals of funding allocated for individual client services. Those payments – not reflected in a separate line item – were nevertheless budgeted at $18 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, according to fiscal analyses done by both the House and Senate.
In the fiscal year beginning July 1, Raimondo asked for an additional $500,000 for supplemental service allocations. That increase would bring the total for such payments to just over $22 million annually. In a Senate Finance Committee hearing earlier this year, DiPalma, the committee’s vice chairman, noted that these extra payments totaled about 10 percent of all reimbursements to private agencies providing developmental disability services. That was too much, he said, indicating that equation the state uses to assign individual funding in the first place needs review.
The compromise budget passed by the House Finance Committee absorbed the $134-million projected revenue shortfall in the next fiscal year through a number of approaches: using one-time revenue, scaling back the Governor’s economic development initiatives, and making a myriad of cuts throughout state government, among others.
The Raimondo administration also is expected to make $25 million in unspecified cuts. The $25-million spending reduction and other provisions based on certain assumptions for the future make the budget a tricky one to balance, said DiPalma, a leading advocate for those with developmental disabilities and others receiving Medicaid-funded services.
For example, he said, in the BHDDH budget, there is an expectation that the Eleanor Slater Hospital will be able to shift $1.6 million in operating costs from state revenue to third-party payers during the current fiscal year and an equal amount in the fiscal year beginning July 1. He indicated that achieving all the designated savings in state revenue in the current fiscal year might be a challenge when only ten days remain in the budget cycle.
The BHDDH budget also contains a variety of cuts to capital projects, although a department spokeswoman said funds for improvements to the Eleanor Slater Hospital were transferred to the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM), which is part of the Department of Administration.
Despite his concerns about the ability of the state to make the required adjustments to balance the budget, DiPalma said that developmental disability funding is moving in the right direction, with legislators listening to the facts and figures presented to them about the need for quality care.
A more comprehensive picture of the budget is expected to unfold as it goes before the full House and Senate over the next two weeks.