By Gina Macris
Rhode Island is struggling to move persons with developmental disabilities into productive jobs as envisioned in a federal consent decree reached with the U.S. Department of Justice three years ago, according to information obtained by Developmental Disability News.
A state report on the first six months’ operation of a pilot program to promote supported employment shows under-utilization of available funds and a job placement rate that falls far short of the state’s own goals.
The report, prepared by the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, was obtained by Developmental Disability News.
Meanwhile, providers of services to persons with disabilities have told a federal court monitor and lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) that they operate at a loss for the employment-related services they offer to clients enrolled in the individualized program, according to three sources familiar with the meeting.
The primary reason is that the program does not pay the full cost of the services. That complaint was first registered when the parameters of the program were disclosed last winter.
In a meeting with the monitor and DOJ lawyers July 10, the providers also said they have inexplicably encountered problems billing for non-work services which are still needed by clients of the supported employment program.
Donna Martin, executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, a trade association of developmental disability service agencies, confirmed that providers told the monitor and the DOJ that funds for the non-work services were “frozen.”
In an interview July 18, she said that the problem may be a computer glitch; an unintended consequence of the state’s efforts to track private providers’ billing for the supported employment program.
Martin said that Kerri Zanchi, the director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities at BHDDH, who inherited the administration of the supported employment program when she was appointed in late January, will meet with providers later this week to discuss a solution to the billing problem.
The problems outlined at the July 10 meeting and in the state’s progress report come in advance of the latest hearing in U.S. District Court, scheduled for July 28, as the court continues to track the state’s compliance with a 2014 federal consent decree.
That consent agreement requires the state to move away from over-reliance on sheltered workshops, by helping persons with developmental disabilities participate in integrated, community-based activities. The decree emphasizes jobs paying at least the minimum wage.
The state’s progress report on the supported employment program says there were 82 job placements between January and June 15, falling well below the pace necessary to achieve a self-imposed goal of 396 new jobs by the end of the calendar year. Of 513 client spaces available, 123, or 24 percent, are vacant, according to the report.
The report indicates that the program has spent far below the $6.8 million authorized by the General Assembly for the fiscal year that ended June 30, even taking into account the fact that the program wasn’t ready to accept clients until January, mid-way through the fiscal year.
The report says the state has made a total of $122,313 in performance payments for the training of job coaches, job placements, and job retention benchmarks. At the current rate, the report says the program will have paid out $390,000 in incentives by the end of the calendar year, far short of a total of $1.4 million set aside for that purpose during the first 12 months of operation.
The report does not say how much of the $6.8 million has been set aside for providing job-related services, or how much providers have billed for these services, albeit at the same rates they would have been paid if the clients had not been enrolled in the special program.
Martin said that, as she understands it, there is usually flexibility between work and non-work categories in funding allocations for individual clients eligible for daytime services, so that an agency that provides more supports in one category during a particular month may draw on the funding for the other category as long as the billing does not exceed the total allocation for the quarter.
However, providers told the federal court’s monitor, Charles Moseley, and the DOJ that for clients of the supported employment program, there is no flexibility in the individual funding authorizations. In other words, if a client runs out of funds designated for non-work activities, the provider may not bill against the supported employment category. That money remains on the client’s account, but it is inaccessible, Martin said, explaining her understanding of the billing problem.
The DOJ, the monitor, and BHDDH all declined comment. A BHDDH spokeswoman said that information the department is compiling for the July 28 federal court hearing has not been finalized and could not be shared in advance with the media. Expenditures for the fiscal year that ended June 30 also have not been finalized, the spokeswoman said.
The federal officials also were preparing for the upcoming hearing when they hosted the July 10 meeting with providers. A four-page agenda prepared for that meeting, obtained by Developmental Disability News, asks providers to weigh in about all aspects of the program, including funding methods, as well as integrated non-work services.
The agenda indicates that the federal officials are particularly concerned that young adults with developmental disabilities – a group prioritized by the consent decree – are under-represented among 388 clients of the supported employment program.
Of 388 adults with developmental disabilities enrolled in the pilot employment program, only 87, or 22 percent, are young adults who have left high school since Jan. 1, 2013, according to the agenda.
At the same time, those 87 individuals represent less than 17 percent of the young adult category protected by the consent decree - 526 persons at last count. In all, the decree covers more than 3400 teenagers and adults of all ages, with the number updated quarterly.
Of three dozen private service providers operating in the state, 22 signed up for the supported employment program. Three of the 22 agencies have made no placements and another 7 have each made one placement from January through June 15. Two agencies have made 31 of the 87 job placements described in the report. The agencies are not identified by name but by letters of the alphabet.
The supported employment program offers bonuses to service providers who achieve goals in staff training, job placement and job retention, but it does not address an underlying problem of the state's low reimbursement rates to providers. The agencies, in turn, pay their employees what are considered depressed wages – an average of $11.14 an hour. These low wages have resulted in high rates of turnover and job vacancy, as well as high overtime costs to meet health and safety staffing requirements, and perpetual training of new hires.
While the supported employment program pays stipends once agency workers have completed a certificate program for job developers and job coaches, it does not pay the up-front costs of hiring and basic training for these workers, or other expenses associated with an agency’s capacity to find jobs for its clients.
Martin said that at the outset, providers hoped that the state would invest half the $6.8 million allocation for supported employment in start-up costs to help agencies expand their services, but instead the state put all the emphasis on performance payments.
Supported employment and related issues are likely to come up at the hearing before Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. on July 28 at 10 a.m.