By Gina Macris
Bowing to intense political pressure, Rhode Island House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello said June 20 that he will pull a $1-million budget line item for an unproven neurological service that doesn’t qualify for Medicaid funding and reallocate most of the money to raises for those who care for adults with developmental disabilities.
The budget, passed by the House Finance Committee June 13, now contains $3 million in state funding and $3.4 million in federal Medicaid funding – a total of $6.4 million – to raise the pay of direct care workers, who earn significantly less than those doing the same job in Massachusetts and Connecticut.
On the Tara Granahan morning show on WPRO radio, Mattiello said he continues to support chiropractor Victor Pedro of Cranston, who practices what he calls Cortical Integrative Therapy (CIT). The Speaker said he is removing the $1 million from the proposed budget “only because it’s politically controversial.”
“Do I think that’s the right thing to do? I’m not convinced of that, but we’re going to pull it because the issue has become very controversial,” Mattiello told Granahan.
Mattiello’s spokesman, Larry Berman, said later in the day that most of the $1 million allocation for CIT will be added to the raises for direct care workers because “Speaker Mattiello believes these are some of the hardest-working and dedicated employees in the state.”
The General Assembly’s leading champion of adults with developmental disabilities, Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, tweeted his appreciation for Mattiello’s decision to re-direct the funds to the wage raises. “THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!!! It is needed, most welcomed and greatly appreciated!!!!!”
Even if all $1 million were added to a line item set aside in the budget for the raises, the total would still be far below the $28.5 million advocates have sought in state funding to stabilize the workforce, plagued by high turnover and a high job vacancy rate.
Berman could not say exactly how much will go to the raises. The breakdown will be available when the full House convenes June 21 to consider the state’s $9.9 billion- budget for the fiscal year which begins July 1, he said.
Any addition of state funds to worker pay will generate about 52 cents on the dollar in federal Medicaid reimbursement, in effect doubling the amount available.
Without the extra allocation, the proposed budget’s $6.4 million for wage hikes would add an average of 34 to 44 cents an hour to the pay of about 4000 direct care workers. Private providers and state government differ on their estimates of how far the money will go.
Entry-level direct care workers make an average of $11.44 an hour, according to a trade association of service providers, while more experienced colleagues are paid an average of $12.50 an hour. The Connecticut legislature enacted a minimum wage of $14.75 for personal care workers in 2018, and Massachusetts pays about $15 an hour.
On the morning talk show, Mattiello defended the chiropractor, who has donated to several political campaigns, including his own, even while he explained why he is pulling the money.
“I’m going to have a terrible debate on the (House) floor. So politics is what it is, and I’m going to do something that I should not do,” Mattiello said.
“I will continue to support the doctor because I think he brings a unique and special treatment to a lot of kids and folks who have no place else to go.”
While Mattiello said Pedro has had “great success,” the federal Medicaid program has turned down the state’s request for federal reimbursement for the treatments because of a lack of scientific evidence that they are effective.
Mattiello said he met Pedro in connection with his law practice before he was elected to the General Assembly and was impressed by the testimonials of his patients.
One of Pedro’s patients was the late father of former Rep. Frank Montanaro, Jr., Mattiello said in the radio interview. Montanaro now works as executive director of the financial and administrative office of the General Assembly.
The first budget allocation for CIT dates back more than a decade. Since Governor Gina Raimondo took office in 2015, her administration has tried to cut the CIT allocation out of the budget, without success.
Mattiello’s latest attempt to restore funding for Pedro that had been cut by the Raimondo administration caught the eye of blogger Steve Ahlquist of Uprise RI. His investigative article sparked the outrage of the state Republican Party and numerous other critics of the Speaker.