By Linda N. Ward
In his recent opinion editorial “Protect the most vulnerable in RI,” Senator Louis P. DiPalma rightly observes that “the budget is a policy document first, and a fiscal document second. It is a reflection of our priorities.” Knowing this, one sees a troubling pattern if you analyze the state of Rhode Island’s annual budget for supports to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) over the last decade.
Since the economic crash, many industries funded by our state have seen budgetary recovery or have grown far beyond their pre-2008 levels, and some have increased many times beyond those funding levels. Budgeting for human services, however, has consistently failed to keep pace with the growth of costs over time. Were state funding for I/DD (intellectual and developmental disability) supports to have been indexed to the consumer price index (CPI) in 2008, there would be 16% more funding ($34 million) for services than have been budgeted for 2019.
Rhode Islanders with disabilities and their families - our neighbors - are in jeopardy and depend on all of us to ensure that their basic health and safety needs are met. As a result of chronic underfunding the I/DD system has reached a tipping point. We must make critical investments to prevent the harm of thousands of Rhode Islanders and their families. The time to act is now.
Agencies that provide support to people with I/DD have not received an increase to their operating rates for 15 years. The rate of reimbursement to providers has remained the same, while all operating expenses have consistently increased. In most cases, providers have operated at a loss for years. If we do not reverse this cycle, we will see further deterioration of services, and more people with I/DD will have difficulty accessing the services they need.
Simultaneously, we face a workforce crisis like none we have ever seen before. A decade ago, our direct support professionals (DSPs), the staff who directly assist people with disabilities, were paid wages that were in most cases $3 - $5 above minimum wage. Over time, the minimum wage has risen, but reimbursements have stagnated. While legislative efforts to raise DSP wages in 2016 and 2017 were laudable, they simply kept providers on par with that minimum threshold, and DSP wages are mostly at or slightly above minimum wage across RI. With the continually growing demand for home and community based services, RI faces a particular problem because most agencies are currently unable to hire and maintain enough qualified staff.
The current approach to planning and budgeting for I/DD services in RI is not sustainable. We should not continually budget for less than what we know safe and adequate supports cost, and then make retroactive appropriations every year and claim that we are overspending. Instead, let’s budget according to the actual needs of Rhode Islanders with I/DD and their families. The proposed $18 million cut in funding to I/DD services (from current year costs) in the Governor’s proposed budget would cause harm to people with disabilities and their families. The State of Rhode Island was once in the national forefront of services to people with disabilities. The Governor and legislature championed services for this vulnerable population. This is a critical moment for our state. Rhode Island must move to restore its place in supporting people with disabilities, their families and the thousands who make up the compassionate workforce.
Linda N. Ward is Executive Director, Opportunities Unlimited, Inc. This commentary was jointly authored and signed by the executive directors of 23 agencies that provide supports to approximately 3,600 people with intellectual disabilities and developmental disabilities and their families, and that employ more than 5,000 Rhode Islanders.