OP-ED: Safety Net For Most Vulnerable Rhode Islanders Should Be Lawmakers' Top Priority

 RI General Assembly Photo

 RI General Assembly Photo

By  Louis P. DiPalma

As legislators, we should treat each taxpayer dollar with the utmost respect, seeking to use it as efficiently as possible. As we grapple with a $200 million deficit in the upcoming budget, we should make it our top priority to protect the most vulnerable in our state — children and families, individuals living with intellectual/developmental disabilities and/or mental health issues, and seniors.

We should see all of our budget items through the eyes of the clients being served. When General Assembly members discuss how to fund the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), we should understand how the agency operates and the challenges the families and children face. Similarly, we should understand the real impact upon clients served by the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH). Legislators learn from community advocates and residents being served by nursing homes, group homes, child-care programs, behavioral health-care facilities and numerous health and human service programs.

The budget is a policy document first, and a fiscal document second. It is a reflection of our priorities.

At a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing, Health and Human Services Secretary Eric Beane stated: “While state spending on health and human services has increased in real terms since the worst of the Great Recession, our belts have remained tight, and spending is below where it was in 2008, once you adjust for inflation. I’d also note that medical costs have historically risen faster than inflation, another sign that we continue to drive savings.”

Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Working Group to Reinvent Medicaid found savings of about $100 million in annual Medicaid expenditures, without cutting eligibility or reducing benefits, which will save $1 billion over 10 years. The General Assembly supported this effort.

Further, the governor has appointed new directors to both DCYF and BHDDH to reform practices and programs and ensure some of the most vulnerable populations have high-quality programs. We should work to understand how funding patterns in the respective agencies are impacting outcomes for these individuals.

Some suggest we spend too much on these programs and that they are part of our fiscal problem. I disagree wholeheartedly. DCYF and BHDDH have been underfunded for many years, even as they are transforming programs to do more with less. Recently, the General Assembly passed legislation to reform DCYF by “reinvesting the benefits that accrue from the more efficient and effective utilization of congregate care, foster homes and community-based services.” Additionally, DCYF and BHDDH are under intense scrutiny from the U.S. District Court as they work to meet the conditions of their respective consent decrees.

We cannot continue to leave these agencies underfunded. We should ensure the well-being and safety of our state’s most vulnerable citizens.

We should work closely with our state’s partners, the multiple private and public providers statewide, in making certain we wisely invest precious taxpayer dollars in early intervention and prevention. And we should maximize our use of federal dollars to offset the impact on Rhode Island taxpayers.

I encourage all Rhode Islanders who care about these issues to get involved. Make sure that your legislators are working to protect the well-being of our state’s most vulnerable people. It is critical that you make your voices heard.

Louis P. DiPalma is a Democratic state senator from Middletown. He is first vice chair of the Senate Finance Committee.