RI ORS Official Queried About 28 In Olmstead Consent Decree Population Waiting For Services

By Gina Macris

The names of 28 adults with developmental disabilities, ostensibly protected by a 2014 federal consent decree mandating they receive job-related services, are nevertheless on a waiting list for assistance from the Rhode Island Office of Rehabilitation Services. That figure is 5 more than ORS reported as of Feb. 1.

 Joseph Murphy                   Photo By Anne Peters 

Joseph Murphy                   Photo By Anne Peters 

Joseph Murphy, vocational rehabilitation administrator for ORS, gave an update on the waiting list Feb. 13 when he attended the monthly meeting of the Employment First Task Force, a group created by the consent decree which is representative of individuals with developmental disabilities, their families, and community organizations working with them.

The waiting list had a total of 399 names as of Feb. 7, according to an ORS web page, with most of the affected individuals having a wide variety of significant disabilities.

Of that group, the 28 individuals at the center of the discussion at the task force meeting have developmental disabilities, physical or intellectual challenges that have been present since birth or childhood. These applicants for ORS services are supposed to have legal protection through the Olmstead consent decree against having any waiting period for services – a fact pointed out by Deb Kney, Director of RI Advocates in Action. The consent decree derives its name from the U.S. Supreme Court decision which clarified the integration mandate of the Americans With Disabilities Act. 

Murphy said the consent decree monitor and the Department of Justice undoubtedly are watching the situation closely, as is the judge in the case. Murphy referred to comments made from the bench Nov. 30 by Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. about his concerns that adequate state and federal funding be available to provide the services the consent decree requires. The next court hearing related to the consent decree is April 10.

Murphy said the monitor, Charles Moseley, and DOJ lawyers will visit Rhode Island Feb. 26 through 28th  to assess the latest developments in the implementation of the decree. 

When he notified the monitor of the waiting list, Murphy said, the monitor reacted with dismay. “He said, ‘Oh my,’ “ Murphy told task force members.  Regulations of the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) require the states to set up a waiting list for vocational rehabilitation services when they can’t serve all eligible applicants.

In this case, the waiting list was triggered by the state’s unexpected loss of about $3 million in federal aid, which was re-directed to Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

The regulations require states to prioritize the order in which someone is removed from the list according to the degree of a person’s disability. Rhode Island’s so-called “Order of Selection” policy list has three levels of disability, but ORS is planning to amend the criteria for the highest priority category

Currently, applicants for ORS services in the highest priority category are those with mental or physical impairments that limit their ability to function on the job in at least three of seven different ways cataloged in state policy.  A proposed amendment would reserve the highest priority status for individuals those whose disabilities affect them in a minimum of four ways, according to an ORS spokeswoman. A public hearing on the matter will be March 8.

Murphy said that because of the consent decree, ORS is working with the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals to help protected clients find employment-related support elsewhere. 

The waiting list didn’t go into effect until Dec. 19, nearly three weeks after it was supposed to start, because changes in ORS policy needed formal approval from the federal RSA, Murphy said.

On the first day, there were already 324 names on the list, he said. Counselors “are in shock,”  Murphy said.

Murphy said the waiting list is “particularly awful because we were just starting to make headway” serving the consent decree population.

No one is affected who was already receiving services when ORS imposed the waiting list.

ORS receives $10.4 million from Title 1 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.But in the last few years it was able to supplement that basic grant with as much as $3.5 million in so-called “reallotment" funds  collected by the federal RSA from states that don’t meet their vocational rehabilitation obligations and re-distributed elsewhere.  For the federal fiscal year that  began Oct. 1, the re-allocation funding came to just $532,000.

While the reallocation money wasn’t set aside for clients with developmental disabilities, a lot of it went to help this group because that’s where the demand was, Murphy said. He characterized the consent decree as an “unfunded mandate.”