NESCSO Review of RI DD Reimbursement Won’t Generate Specific New Rate Recommendations

By Gina Macris

Elena Nicolella and Rick Jacobson All Photos By Anne Peters

Elena Nicolella and Rick Jacobson All Photos By Anne Peters

The non-profit consortium hired to review the reimbursements Rhode Island pays private agencies serving adults with developmental disabilities will not produce a new set of recommended rates, its executive director said April 25.

Rather, consultants supervised by the consortium will review the impact of the existing system and present facts and data that will enable the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) to make more informed policy decisions, based on available funding and other factors, said Elena Nicolella. She is executive director of NESCSO, the New England States Consortium Systems Organization.

Nicolella addressed a special legislative commission studying the current fee-for-service rate structure, called Project Sustainability.

DiPalma and Kelly Donovan, A Consumer Advocate

DiPalma and Kelly Donovan, A Consumer Advocate

For more than an hour, the commission chairman, Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, and other members of the panel peppered Nicolella and consultant Rick Jacobson with questions as they struggled to come up with a clearer idea of what NESCSO’s recommendations might look like.

The pair, aided by BHDDH officials, did flesh out the picture somewhat. But DiPalma, said Nicolella will be invited back in June to give an update on the work, which is underway.

“We will not be issuing recommendations on specific rates,” Nicolella said, explaining that is not within the scope of the work outlined in the contract between NESCSO and BHDDH.

The work will assess current rates quantitatively and qualitatively and analyze “the impact of the rate structure and payment methodology on people receiving services and the provider agencies and make recommendations for the future,” Nicolella said.

NESCSO will develop scenarios or “roadmaps” of what it would take for the state to achieve certain goals, putting the priority on the state’s obligation to meet the requirements of a 2014 civil rights consent decree with the federal government. That means the work will focus on day services and employment supports, at least initially, Nicolella said.

Some of the recommendations, however, will have implications for the entire system of services, she said.

Boss at 4-25 meeting edited.jpg

Rebecca Boss, the BHDDH director, gave an example of one system-wide priority – creating a stable workforce.

She was asked after the meeting why BHDDH structured the work the way it did.

Boss reiterated that NESCSO would present “facts and data” in an analysis based on certain assumptions. She and Nicolella said the policy decisions would be up to BHDDH.

“If the decisions we make (at BHDDH) don’t meet expectations, it will be out there,” Boss said, emphasizing that the work will be transparent.

The assumption at the heart of Project Sustainability was that providers could do the same work with less money. A former BHDDH administration relayed that assumption to the General Assembly in an unsigned memo that contained a slew of reimbursement rate reductions that formed the basis for cuts enacted in 2011 to inaugurate Project Sustainability. The reductions averaged 17 percent.

Boss said “that’s not the kind of assumption we’re talking about.” Instead, the assumption for one analysis might be that industry-wide, providers should have health insurance for their employees, Boss said. Another assumption might be the amount it costs providers to cover employee-related overhead, she said.

In a separate conversation outside the meeting, Nicolella said the recommendations would be “driven by the data” and “not limited by the by the state budget.”

At the same time, NESCSO will “stop short of what was recommended last time,” she said, alluding to the specificity of rates proposed by Burns & Associates, healthcare consultants who worked on Project Sustainability.

In 2011, Burns & Associates recommended rates that would have paid entry-level workers nearly $14 an hour, but after the General Assembly cut $26 million from developmental disability funding, many workers ended up at minimum wage.

Since then, wages have increased only incrementally, resulting in high turnover and job vacancy. Providers say the reimbursement rates do not cover their actual employee-related costs, like payroll taxes, health insurance, and the like.

During the meeting, Nicolella assured a spokeswoman for providers that the rate review will look at the agencies’ figures. At least one agency, Spurwink RI, has laid out its gap in dollars and cents several times before the House Finance Committee.

At the commission meeting, Spurwink’s executive director, Regina Hayes, asked Nicolella and Jacobson whether the review would pay attention to compatibility with current law.

For example, she said, the Affordable Care Act requires employers to pay health insurance for workers who put in at least 30 hours a week. But Project Sustainability assumes that only those working 40 hours a week are entitled to health insurance, Hayes said.

Nicolella responded, “That’s exactly the kind of information we should be hearing right now, because it’s extremely helpful.”

She and Jacobson both said the assessment of the impact of the current system will include engagement with consumers and families,as well as providers. But neither of them could lay out a schedule or format for that type of engagement.

NESCSO is required to produce a series of reports for BHDDH between June and December, she said. It is the consortium’s intent to complete the work in time for BHDDH to make its budget request for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2020, Nicolella said.

Nicolella explained that NESCSO’s only mission is to serve the New England states as they seek to research issues and solve problems in the fields of health and human services.

“We are not a consulting company. We don’t sell our services,” she said.

In this case, NESCSO is overseeing four outside consultants, including Jacobson, who are doing the actual work.

NESCSO’s board of directors includes health and human services officials from five of the six New England states, according to its website. Only Maine is not listed as a member.

Nicolella said Rhode Island’s designated board member is Patrick Tigue, the Medicaid director. (Nicolella herself is a former Rhode Island Medicaid director.)

The consortium’s two sources of revenue are state dues and proceeds from a national conference. The BHDDH review is a member benefit, Nicolella said. The contract encompasses not only the work on developmental disabilities but a review of rates for behavioral healthcare services and a model for outpatient services for patients of Eleanor Slater Hospital. But the state still must pay for the consultants’ work - $1.3 million over an 18-month period.

RI DD Services: The Annual Scramble Begins To Avoid Waitlists or Reduced Payments To Providers

By Gina Macris

For the second consecutive year, the director of the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) has raised the possibility that adults with developmental disabilities might face waiting periods for services if the department cannot resolve a projected $9,.4 million deficit by next June.

Most of that estimated $9.4 million shortfall - $7.6 million – occurs in the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD).

Waiting lists and reductions in reimbursement rates to private providers are among alternatives proposed by BHDDH director Rebecca Boss in a corrective action plan for dealing with the shortage in state revenue. Private organizations do most of the front-line work with adults facing intellectual and developmental challenges.

Any state agency running over budget must submit a corrective action plan to the state budget office. Seven other agencies are in the same position as BHDDH.

While complying with the requirement for a deficit-reduction plan, BHDDH also has prepared a budget request which seeks a additional $12.7 million in state revenue for the private system of developmental disability services through June 30, 2020. That total includes:

  • $7.6 million in supplemental funding to close the gap in payments to private service providers during the current fiscal year.

  • $5.1 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2019.


No Wage Hikes In BHDDH Budget Request

The combined $12.7 million request does not reflect any wage increases for direct care workers in private agencies, a BHDDH spokeswoman said. According to a trade association, workers receive an average of $11.36 an hour - less than the $12 hourly pay offered at the Target store on the other side of the Massachusetts state line in Seekonk during Thanksgiving week.

The consultant involved in developing the existing fee-for-service rate structure seven years ago said recently that it’s “past time” for an overhaul of the reimbursements. Both House and Senate leaders say they support the idea of wage hikes for front-line workers.

Governor Gina Raimondo has not responded to email requests from Developmental Disability News for comment on recent public remarks of the consultant, Mark Podrazik, President of Burns & Associates.

Raimondo is due to present her budget proposal to the General Assembly the third week in January. She must consider many factors, including a projected $41.9 million deficit in overall state spending and recent revenue estimates running about $5.4 million below the previous projections, made last May.

Federal Officials Watching Budget Process

A lot can happen between now, the start of the budget planning cycle, and the end of June, when General Assembly adopts final figures to close out one fiscal year and launch a new budget on July 1.

And when it comes to spending on developmental disabilities, the conversation has broadened in the last several years to include the ever-increasing demands for reform imposed by a 2014 federal civil rights consent decree between the state and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Before the budget was finalized in the last session of the General Assembly, the independent federal court monitor for the consent decree had sought and obtained written assurances from Raimondo that the state would support mandated systemic changes in services as Rhode Island moves toward community-based, integrated supports of adults with developmental disabilities.

In a letter dated May 14, 2018 to Charles Moseley, the federal court monitor, Raimondo said, “Rhode Island has made significant progress in meeting the requirements of the Consent Decree, and we will continue to prioritize this work.”

What the state’s commitment to developmental disabilities looks like in the current budget is level funding.

Last January, Raimondo proposed a cut of $18.4 million to payments for private service providers, but after better-than-expected revenue estimates in May, pressure from constituents, and Moseley’s request for assurances, Raimondo reversed her position and the General Assembly approved a status quo budget.

Boss Details The Current Problem

Now Boss says that level funding will not be enough to meet expenses, primarily because of an increasing caseload and rising average costs per person. These two trends can be traced back to compliance with the consent decree.

In the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, DDD spent a total of $228.3 million in federal-state Medicaid funds, including $111.1 million in state revenue, for payments to private agencies that provide most of the developmental disability services, Boss wrote to the state Budget Office in October.

The current budget authorizes an expenditure of $229.4 million for those Medicaid payments, with $107.5 from state revenue and the rest from the federal government.

However, in the current budget, DDD is expected to stretch the $229.4 million to cover some additional mandates:

  • a total of $1.5 million on contracts and staff to support the consent decree

  • $620,000 – about $400,000 more than anticipated – to pay for an increase in wages for home health aides and licensed practical nurses (LPNs) who serve adults with developmental disabilities in their own homes. Boss said the state Medicaid office had set a slightly higher rate for the LPNs than the department had anticipated.

Together, these two factors mean that there is $1 million less in the current budget than there was in the last one for actual services to adults with developmental disabilities, Boss wrote in a report to state Budget Office on spending for the first quarter of the fiscal year.

At the same time, DDD estimates its overall caseload will increase about 1.5 percent during the current budget cycle, based on trends over the last two years. That increase will cost an additional $1.1 million from state revenue,, according to Boss.

In addition, nearly 900 persons are slated for re-evaluation of their needs during the current fiscal year, with interviewers using a revised assessment that has been resulting in generally higher per-person costs since it was adopted in November, 2016, Boss said. The use of the revised assessment, the Supports Intensity Scale – A, is expected to add about $900,000 from state revenue to service costs, Boss wrote in the first-quarter spending report, submitted in October.

Moreover, DDD expects to spend all $6.8 million allocated by the General Assembly for a supported employment program that pays private providers performance bonuses for job placement and retention., The first allocation, in the fiscal year that began July 1, 2016, was underutilized.

Boss said she did not favor a wait list for services as a corrective action plan because it would cause hardship and make DDD unable to continue complying with the 2014 federal consent decree.

Rate reductions to private service providers also would make it impossible to comply with the consent decree and would destabilize the entire system of care, Boss said.

Savings anticipated in State-Run Group Homes

Boss said she does favor another option, consolidation of the state-run group home system known at Rhode Island Community Living and Supports (RICLAS.) DDD is working on closing one state-run group home and relocating existing staff to save on overtime costs, Boss said.

Changes in group home configuration toward smaller units more accessible to the community are being required anyway by the Medicaid Home and Community Based Final Rule.

The consultant for Burns & Associates, Mark Podrazik, recommended in 2011 that the state gradually eliminate RICLAS to more more equitably fund private providers, who were facing severe cuts in payments that resulted in dramatically lower wages and made it difficult for employers to fill job vacancies, problems that persists today.

In testimony Nov. 13 before a special Senate commission, Podrazik said he was told in 2011 that the state did not want to address RICLAS out of concern about a fight from unions.

Over the last several years, however, the size of the RICLAS caseload has declined through attrition. For example, at the start of 2016, there were 210 persons in RICLAS homes, state officials said at the time. Six weeks ago, in mid-October, the RICLAS caseload had shrunk to 126, according to state records.

Healthcare Consultant Says "It's Past Time" For RI To Revisit Rates It Pays For Private DD Services

Boss DiPalma Quattromani Kelly Donovan Deb Kney Kevin McHale.jpg

From foreground, on the right, Rebecca Boss, Louis DiPalma, Peter Quattromani, Kelly Donovan, Deb Kney, and Kevin McHale, all members of the Project Sustainability Commission. DiPalma is chairman. All photos by Anne Peters

By Gina Macris

Rhode Island is overdue in undertaking a comprehensive review of rates it pays private providers of services for adults with developmental disabilities, according to a top official of a healthcare consulting firm who helped develop the existing payment structure seven years ago.

Mark Podrazik

Mark Podrazik

“It’s past time,” said Mark Podrazik, president and co-founder of Burns & Associates. He said the firm recommends an overhaul of rates once every five years. Podrazik appeared Nov. 13 before a Senate-sponsored commission which is evaluating the way the state organizes and funds its services for those facing intellectual and developmental challenges.

The commission chairman, Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, had invited Podrazik to help the 19-member panel gain a deeper understanding of the controversial billing and payment system now in place before it recommends changes intended to ultimately improve the quality of life of some 4,000 adults with developmental disabilities.

Burns & Associates was hired by the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) in 2010 to develop and implement Project Sustainability, a fee-for-service system of payments to hold private providers accountable for the services they deliver and give consumers more flexibility in choosing what they wanted, Podrazik said.

In answering questions posed by commission members, Podrazik made it clear that the final version of Project Sustainability was shaped by a frenzy to control costs. The state ignored key recommendations of Burns & Associates intended to more equitably fund the private service providers and to protect the interests of those in the state’s care.

Podrazik said that overall, Burns & Associates believed the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD) had neither the capacity or the competence implement Project Sustainability at the outset or to carry out the mandates to companion civil rights agreements with the U.S. Department of Justice reached in 2013 and 2014.

“I think people were a little shocked” by the new federal requirements to integrate day services in the community and by the question of “who was going to do it,” Podrazik said of the DDD staff at the time.

DDD also had an antiquated data system that ill served Project Sustainability and the separate demands for statistics imposed by a federal court monitor overseeing the consent decrees.

Podrazik said the aged IT system was the biggest problem faced by Burns & Associates.

Asked whether funding changed to implement the civil rights agreements, Podrazik said he didn’t recall that there were any significant changes, if any at all. Burns & Associates ended its day-to-day involvement with BHDDH in Feb. 2015, when Maria Montanaro became the department director. (She has since been succeeded by Rebecca Boss, and there has been a complete reorganization and expansion of management in DDD. A modern IT system recently went online.)

Between the fall of 2015 and early 2016, Burns & Associates had a separate contract with the Executive Office of Human Services, which asked for advice on cutting supplemental payments to adults with developmental disabilities.

While Project Sustainability was supposed to give consumers more choice, the U.S. Department of Justice found just the opposite in a 2013 investigation.

DOJ lawyers wrote in their findings that “systemic State actions and policies” directed resources for employment and non-work activities to sheltered workshops and facility-based day programs, making it difficult for individuals to get services outside those settings.

“Flexibility” Functioned As Tool For Controlling Costs

At the meeting Nov. 13, Andrew McQuaide, a commission member and senior director at Perspectives Corporation, a service provider, suggested that features of Project Sustainability ostensibly designed to encourage flexibility and autonomy for those using the services functioned in reality as mechanisms to control costs.

Podrazik said, “In my heart of hearts, I think everybody wanted more flexibility,” but “then the financial constraints were imposed in such a way that the objectives could not necessarily be met.”

“We were not hired to cut budgets,” Podrazik said. Going into the project, “we did not know what the budget was” for Project Sustainability.

He said Burns & Associates recommended fair market rates for a menu of services under the new plan. For example, it proposed an hourly rate for direct care workers was $13.97. But BHDD refused the consultants’ advice to fight “aggressively” for this level of funding, Podrazik said. With the budget year that began July 1, 2011, BHDDH recommended, and the General Assembly adopted, a rate of $12.03 an hour, nearly two dollars less.

The state had the option to change the rate effective Oct. 1, 2011, and it did, dropping the hourly reimbursement for direct care workers to $10.66 to absorb last-minute cuts made by the General Assembly in the developmental disabilities budget for the fiscal year that had begun July 1. (Rates have increased slightly since then. The average direct care worker made about $11.36 an hour in early 2018.)

“I understood why the department (BHDDH) was doing what they were doing, because they were getting an incredible amount of pressure on the budget – so much so that they were getting their hand slapped when they were over,” Podrazik said.

“From the outside coming in, there was a lack of confidence that BHDDH could actually administer a budget that came in on target, so that there was an intense scrutiny to keep the budget intact. It did not help that that they were cut and that there were no caseload increases (in the budget) for multiple years,” Podrazik said.

“They were behind the eight-ball before anything was contemplated,” he said.

Louis DiPalma, Rebecca Boss

Louis DiPalma, Rebecca Boss

DiPalma, the commission chairman, saw the situation from a different perspective: “Someone will say the agency exceeded the budget, but if it was unrealistic from the get-go, you’re going to exceed that budget.”

As a legislator, DiPalma said, he has looked at developmental disability service budgets for ten years, and there hasn’t been one that was realistic.

“Right,” Podrazik replied, adding that funding for developmental disabilities had been declining from year to year in Rhode Island, even before Burns & Associates was hired for Project Sustainability.

Podrazik said he hasn’t been following developmental disabilities in Rhode Island during the last few years, but “somebody should look at the rates, if for no other reason” than “we’re in an economy that’s very different than it was in 2010.” He cited health care costs and a move toward “$15 an hour wages.”

“It’s a whole different landscape,” he said.

Consultants Recommended Eliminating Separate State-Run DD System

In 2011, with Project Sustainability facing a funding shortage even before it got off the ground, Burns & Associates recommended that BHDDH get more money to support the services of private agencies by eliminating – gradually – the state-run developmental disabilities system, called Rhode Island Community Living and Supports (RICLAS.)

At the time, average per-person cost for a RICLAS client ran about three times more than the average in the privately-run system. All the RICLAS clients could eventually be transferred to private providers, Burns & Associates advised the state.

“This recommendation was shut down immediately, with the reason being a protracted fight with the unions,” Podrazik said in prepared remarks.

Burns & Associates then recommended lowering the reimbursements to RICLAS. “This was also shut down,” Podrazik wrote.


“It was apparent early on that there were funds to be redistributed between RICLAS and the Private DD system, but there was no appetite to do so. It is unclear exactly where this directive was coming from within state government, but that was the directive given” to Burns & Associates, Podrazik wrote.

Providers Expected To Maintain Same Service For Reduced Pay

Commission members asked Podrazik whether anyone at Burns & Associates or state government believed that it was possible for private service providers to absorb the rate reductions written into Project Sustainability, given the fact that about half the agencies were already running deficits before the program was enacted.

McQuaide quoted from the memo that BHDDH sent the General Assembly in May, 2011, explaining its approach to implementing Project Sustainability.

“We did not reduce our assumptions for the level of staffing hours required to serve individuals,” the memo said. “In other words, we are forcing the providers to stretch their dollars without compromising the level of services to individuals,” the memo said.

McQuaide asked, "Did anyone actually think that was possible?”

“I don’t know,” Podrazik replied, but he remembered meetings in which participants expressed sentiments similar to the quotation highlighted by McQuaide.

Given the budgetary restrictions, Podrazik said, he favored reducing rates rather than cutting back on services or creating a waiting list for services.

Podrazik said Burns & Associates was hired to deal with certain problems; not to review services for adults with developmental disabilities top to bottom.

Assessment Used For Funding Became Controversial

Asked to change the assessment used to determine each person’s need for support, Burns and Associates recommended the Supports Intensity Scale, or SIS, and advised it should be administered by an entity “other than the provider or the state to avoid the perception of gaming the system,” he said.

The state went forward with the SIS, linked it to funding individual authorizations, or personal budgets for clients, and assigned the administration of the assessment to the state’s own social caseworkers.

The fact that the SIS is administered within BHDDH has been criticized by the DOJ and an independent federal court monitor. With federal scrutiny on BHDDH, and numerous complaints from families and providers that the SIS scores were manipulated to cut costs, the department switched to a revised SIS assessment and retrained all its assessors in November, 2016.

Funding Authorized Three Months At A Time To Control Costs

According to Podrazik, Burns & Associates recommended each client’s funding authorization – or personal budget – be awarded on an annual basis, to allow individuals to plan their lives and providers to look ahead in figuring out expenses.

But the state insisted on the option to change reimbursement rates on a quarterly basis as a means of managing costs more closely within a fiscal year. That was the feature of Project Sustainability which enabled BHDDH to impose two consecutive cuts on providers, once on July 1, 2011, and a second time on Oct. 1, 2011. Since then, rates have increased incrementally.

At the hearing, Podrazik illustrated the difference between a yearly authorization and a quarterly one in the life of a consumer.

“Maybe someone goes away for the month of August,” he said. If that person has a quarterly authorization, the money for services in August reverts to the state. But with an annual authorization, the funding can be used for the person’s benefit during another month of the year.

Podrazik agreed with a commission member, Peter Quattromani, CEO of United Cerebral Palsy, that quarterly authorizations compromise the flexibility intended to be part of the design of Project Sustainability.

Podrazik said he knows of no other state that makes quarterly authorizations for developmental disability services.

DiPalma, the commission chairman, asked if there was any thought given to the impact of a requirement that providers document how each staff person working during the day spends his or her time with clients, in 15-minute blocks.

Podrazik said, “I don’t think people thought the impact would be negligible, but the desire for accountability outweighed that, and I fully endorsed them.”

Project Sustainability decreased overhead costs to private providers but did not offset those cuts with allowances for hiring the personnel necessary to process the documentation.

When DiPalma thanked Podrazik for his time, Podrazik quipped that Rhode Island was “the last place I thought I’d ever be.”

“The Rhode Island project wore me down, so I’m working with hospitals these days,” Podrazik said.

He said he came back to Rhode Island because DiPalma was very persuasive and because he wanted to “set the record straight” on the involvement of Burns & Associates with Project Sustainability.







Burns & Associates President To Speak To RI Senate Commission Studying DD Reimbursement

A special commission of the Rhode Island Senate on “Project Sustainability” will meet Tuesday, Nov. 13 to hear a presentation from the president of a healthcare consulting firm which helped the state develop its current fee-for-service Medicaid reimbursement system for private providers who serve adults with developmental disabilities.

The speaker, Mark Podrazik , is the president and co-founder of Burns & Associates, an Arizona-based company which advised the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) on recommendations BHDDH made to the General Assembly. The legislature made the final decisions about the reimbursement model, which was enacted in 2011.

Burns & Associates was paid nearly $1.4 million for their work developing “Project Sustainability” and analyzing its fiscal impact between 2010 and 2016, according to state records.

Tuesday’s public meeting will begin at 3 p.m. in the Senate Lounge of the State House. Public comment is invited at the end of the session, according to the commission chairman, State Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown. The commission includes 19 members from state government and a cross-section of the developmental disability community. Among them are two consumers and representatives of advocacy groups and service providers.

RI Project Sustainability's Plan For Enhanced DD Services Was "Cover" For Budget Cuts - Testimony

By Gina Macris

Louis DiPalma, Chairman of Project Sustainability Commission Photo By Anne PETERS

Louis DiPalma, Chairman of Project Sustainability Commission Photo By Anne PETERS

Project Sustainability, introduced in Rhode Island in 2011 as a method for enhancing individualized services for adults with developmental disabilities, instead has diminished the quality of their lives.

That assessment set the stage Oct. 9 for deliberations of a Senate-sponsored commission charged with studying Rhode Island’s past and present system of developmental disability services, with the aim of designing a better future.

At the same time, the chairman of the 19-member panel, Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, emphasized that the purpose of the commission is not to assign blame but to learn from the past and present to figure out how to best move forward. The commission must report to the Senate by March 1.

Project Sustainability was “a well-manicured statement to cover up” cuts in funding and services, said Tom Kane, CEO of AccessPoint RI, one of three dozen private agencies serving adults with developmental disabilities in Rhode Island.

Kim Einloth Testifies

Kim Einloth Testifies

Project Sustainability had a “major impact on the quality of service we were able to deliver,” said Kim Einloth, a senior director at Perspectives Corporation, one of Rhode Island’s largest service providers. She said the community-based program of day services was forced to put people in large groups, lay off specialists like occupational and speech therapists and discontinue consulting services with physical therapists.

Gloria Quinn, executive director of West Bay Residential Services, said she noticed immediately that the disabilities system was “demoralized, decreased and degraded” when she returned to Rhode Island after a nine-year absence in 2013. When Quinn moved out of state in 2004, she said, Rhode Island was one of the top-ranked states nationwide for its programs for adults with developmental disabilities. Quinn sits on the commission.

In a meeting that lasted about 90 minutes, the commission covered a broad range of topics related to Project Sustainability and the controversies linked to it: inadequate overall funding, depressed worker wages, and an assessment used – or misused - to determine individual allocations for services.

The planning and execution of Project Sustainability has been well documented, primarily by Burns & Associates, healthcare consultants hired by the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) in 2010.

DiPalma said that from what he’s seen, Burns & Associates was “charged with providing a plan, and the state chose to do something different.”

Rebecca Boss, the current director of BHDDH, reviewed the history of Project Sustainability, designed to bring uniformity to funding for specific services and enable families to make informed choices about services. Project Sustainability aimed to use data gathered through new funding methods to create incentives for services to be delivered in the most integrated setting possible, she said.

“Change is hard, and even with perfect planning, it would not result in everyone’s needs being met,” Boss said.

“I think everyone knows” that the current administration – including Governor Gina Raimondo, Kerri Zanchi, the Director of Developmental Disabilities, herself, “is committed to working with our stakeholders” to figure out “where do we go from here,” said Boss.

“Many may have different views of history, as is often the case,” said Boss, a commission member.

Kane, of AccessPoint, said he didn’t want his anger about Project Sustainability to reflect the way he regards the current administration. The working relationship service providers now have with the BHDDH administration, he said, is “better than we’ve had in a very, very long time.”

Tom Kane Chats After The Commission Meeting

Tom Kane Chats After The Commission Meeting

The plans for Project Sustainability “talked about individualizing services and moving toward person-centeredness and all of the lovely buzz words,” said Kane, but the rhetoric really described “a system we already had that got dismantled.”

While Project Sustainability talked about individualization, inclusion and community support, the regulations governing developmental disability services “were always about center-based group activity.”

“Finally, under this administration, the regulations have been put forward that will put back the flexibility we need,” Kane said. The new regulations have passed a public comment period and are to be finalized by the end of the year.

Funding, however, has a long way to go to support the kinds of changes providers, families, and consumers want, by all accounts.

Commission member Andrew McQuaide zeroed in on historical funding of developmental disability services.

McQuaide said that developmental disability spending had been on a downward trend in Rhode Island since 1993.That was the year before the last residents left the Ladd School, the state’s only institution for those with intellectual challenges.

Citing According to Burns & Associates, McQuaide said:

  • Between 1993 and 2008, Rhode Island’s expenditures for developmental disabilities decreased by 29.5 percent at the same time the national rate increased by 17.8 percent.

  • Rhode Island is only one of 14 states to report a reduction between 2007 and 2009 in per-person expenditure, a decrease of 4 percent at the same time the national trend registered a 5.6 percent increase.

McQuaide also said that anecdotal information indicates about half the state’s private providers were reporting operating deficits in 2009, ill-preparing them to absorb the additional funding cuts that came along with Project Sustainability.

An overview prepared by the Senate Fiscal Office showed that actual spending on developmental disabilities, including both state and federal Medicaid funds, dropped $26.2 million in the fiscal year that began July 1, 2011 when compared to spending during the previous 12 months.

The overview shows that, adjusted for inflation, the current budget still has not caught up to the spending reach of the developmental disability system in the year before Project Sustainability was enacted.

Chart courtesy of RI SENATE FISCAL OFFICE

Chart courtesy of RI SENATE FISCAL OFFICE

Prior to Project Sustainability, private agencies negotiated an annual sum for each individual in their care.

The new system generated standard reimbursement rates for each of 18 different services that agencies were authorized to provide.

Kane noted that from the outset, the funding for Project Sustainability was not designed to cover all of the actual costs of private providers, almost all of whom had submitted extensive financial data to the state.

A BHDDH memo for rate-setting that the department sent to the General Assembly noted that the reimbursement rates eventually adopted for Project Sustainability were 17 to 19 percent below “benchmark rates” which Burns & Associates calculated from the median wage for direct care jobs - $13.97 an hour.

The state could not afford more, the memo said, citing the poor economy at the time.

The memo said the lower reimbursement rates were calculated by reducing the allowances for fringe benefits for workers and in some cases, cutting transportation and program expenses.

Kane, who is familiar with the rates in the memo and other Burns & Associates documents, said providers were “actually told in a meeting, ’We’ll see what this (the benchmark wage) costs but we won’t actually bring this to the legislature because they’ll laugh at us.’

“I don’t understand why the expenditure of well over a million dollars on Burns & Associates wasn’t taken seriously enough” to put forward actual expenditures “and let the legislature decide whether it was appropriate,” Kane said.

McQuaide, meanwhile, quoted from the memo. “We did not reduce our assumptions for the level of staffing hours required to serve individuals. In other words, we are forcing the providers to stretch their dollars without compromising the level of services to individuals,” the memo said. See related article

McQuaide said the experience of the last seven years has shown that it was a “fiction” to think the system of private providers would be forced to implement Project Sustainability without compromising services.

The state has a separate system of group homes for adults with developmental disabilities which has not been subject to rules or the pay cuts that came with Project Sustainability. Instead, the workers are unionized state employees with full benefits.

Donna Martin and Andrew McQuaide

Donna Martin and Andrew McQuaide

In the privately-run system, McQuaide said, the wages paid direct care workers still don’t reach the original $13.97 per hour “benchmark”, or median-pay rate, calculated by Burns & Associates.

The most recent data available indicates that the average entry wage for direct care workers is $11.37 an hour. It comes from a survey of member agencies of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island (CPNRI) conducted last February, according to Donna Martin, executive director of the trade association, which represents about two thirds of service providers in Rhode Island. Martin said she is in the process of updating the figure.

Martin, a commission member, told the panel that CPNRI has met with the BHDDH leadership and representatives of Governor Raimondo’s office and the Office of Management and Budget to review current provider reimbursements in comparison to an extensive menu of rates envisioned by Burns & Associates in planning Project Sustainability. BHDDH, OMB, and the Governor have already planning a budget proposal for the next fiscal year.

DiPalma said Burns & Associates originally wanted to advance a “competitive” average wage of $15.46 an hour.

Addressing wage inequities will be a critical focus of the commission’s work, he said. Two years ago, DiPalma started a campaign to raise direct care wages to $15 an hour over five budget cycles. Massachusetts already pays its direct care workers a $15 hourly rate, and many Rhode Islanders find they don’t have to move to take advantage of these higher-paying positions at agencies that are an easy commute from their homes, DiPalma said.

Another source of rancor over the last several years has been the assessment used to determine individual funding levels under the terms of Project Sustainability – the Supports Intensity Scale (SIS), which was updated in November, 2016.

Kane has said data compiled by Burns & Associates indicate the original version of the SIS was used to cut individual funding. See related article

A. Anthony Antosh

A. Anthony Antosh

Even though the SIS has been revised, the state’s top academic researcher in developmental disabilities, A. Anthony Antosh, told the commission that using the SIS as a funding tool violates the original intent of the instrument as an aid for professionals designing individual programs of support for persons with disabilities.

Antosh, a commission member, is the retiring Director of the Sherlock Center on Disabilities at Rhode Island College.

His comments apparently prompted Kane to recall another moment in a Project Sustainability planning meeting in which Burns & Associates’ human services partner praised the multi-faceted assessment providers were using at the time to figure out how much funding a particular person needed. In each case, the assessment took into account intellectual capacity, responses in various situations and potential risks.

That Burns & Associates partner, the Human Services Research Institute of Oregon, wrote a memo to the General Assembly saying that “ ‘resource allocation’ should never be thought of as mostly an exercise involving the assessment and simple service delivery.”

Policy makers should also take into account the goals of the programs, such as increasing community integration or increasing employment, before determining the array of services and rate schedules, HSRI said.

“Data collected by a measure such as the SIS is necessary,” the memo said, “but certainly not sufficient.”

The memo was condensed before it reached the General Assembly, and the recommendation against using the SIS alone to determine individual funding was eliminated,

RI DD Service Providers Could Do Same Job for 13 Percent Less Money, Said 2011 Memo To Assembly

By Gina Macris

This article has been updated.

In a single day in 2011, the Rhode Island General Assembly slashed about $26.5 million, or 12.7 percent, from payments to private agencies which care for adults with developmental disabilities, some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

The massive cutback sent the privately-run developmental disability service system into a tailspin from which it has not yet recovered, even though the dollar amount has been restored.

Documents obtained by Developmental Disability News through public records requests indicate that the budget cutback was based on an unsupported assumption that the private agencies could uniformly deliver the same level of service with far less money.

Moreover, the records show how Project Sustainability, a set of regulations designed to assess the needs of persons with developmental disabilities and assign them a dollar value for services, seemed to function instead as an attempt to control spending – albeit with questionable success.

Today the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) spends more than $21 million a year to “supplement” funding authorizations for individual clients made through Project Sustainability. The supplemental payments amount to about ten percent of all the reimbursements the state makes to the private agencies. Much of the supplemental funding occurs when families and providers appeal the funding determinations successfully, making the case that the original authorizations were inadequate to provide needed services.

A spokesman for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello defends Project Sustainability, saying that it’s brought accountability to disabilities spending.

Larry Berman said that “Project Sustainability changed a system that did not have a consistent payment model, could not provide information about what services were being provided or in what setting, and if any services were actually provided. It created a new billing system that could account for that.”

“All providers are paid uniform rates for the same services,” he said. Previously, each agency negotiated with the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH.) a monthly stipend for a bundle of services for each client.

Since 2011, the General Assembly has added $47 million to services for adults with developmental disabilities, Berman said.

Berman rejected the notion that the General Assembly contributed to conditions which led to a 2014 consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice and ten years of federal oversight of the state’s developmental disability system, which ends in 2024. 

Findings of the U.S. Department of Justice

In findings that led to the consent decree between the state and federal government, however, the DOJ linked Project Sustainability with violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

It said Project Sustainability restricted individuals’ access to regular jobs and non-work activities in the community – opportunities for choice that are guaranteed under Title II of the ADA.  The U.S. Supreme Court re-affirmed Title II in its 1999 Olmstead decision, saying that individuals with all types of disabilities are entitled to receive services in the least restrictive environment that is therapeutically appropriate. And that environment is presumed to be the community.

In its findings, the DOJ noted that the “precipitous state budget cuts in 2011” exacerbated the problem of retaining qualified staff – a problem that today is described by providers as a “crisis”, despite an incremental pay raise to direct-care workers adopted in the current budget. Workers would get a second small raise in the next fiscal year, according to the budget proposal of Governor Gina Raimondo.

RI Allowed Less Money Than Provider Costs

To understand how the BHDDH budgeting process got more than $20 million off course, a history of Project Sustainability is in order.

In 2011, then-Governor Lincoln Chafee recommended $10 million to $12 million in cuts to developmental disability services, but the leadership of the General Assembly wanted bigger reductions. It first sought to limit eligibility, but backed off when an outside healthcare consultant under contract to BHDDH advised against it, according to a memo obtained through a public records request.

The consultant, Burns & Associates, said restricting eligibility would probably violate the federal “maintenance of effort” requirement for federal Medicaid funding and would not be approved by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services.  All developmental disability services are funded through the federal-state Medicaid program.

Five days after that opinion, dated May 26, 2011, BHDDH sent the General Assembly a memo describing a “methodology” for steep cuts to dozens of reimbursement rates, most of them between 17 and 19 percent below a target rate that was established after a year’s research that included data from the providers themselves on their costs. In undercutting that “target” rate, BHDDH said that the state could not afford to spend more, the memo said.

“We did not reduce our assumption for the level of staffing hours required to serve individuals,” the memo said.

“In other words, we are forcing the providers to stretch their dollars without compromising the level of services to individuals,” said the memo.

Craig Stenning, who was BHDDH director at the time, recently declined all comment for this article and ended a phone conversation with a reporter before any questions could be asked.

The General Assembly doubled Chafee’s recommended reductions in reimbursements on the basis of a  last-minute floor amendment in the House, after the public had been cleared from the gallery of the chamber, early the morning of July 1, the final day of the General Assembly’s regular session that year. The budgeted reduction was $24.5 million, but the actual cut eventually totaled $26.5 million, according to the state’s figures on actual spending.

The vote also established Project Sustainability, the bureaucratic process - still largely in place today – that the DOJ later found violated the civil rights of clients of BHDDH. The primary elements:

  • The Supports Intensity Scale (SIS), a standardized assessment designed to determine needed for an individual to accomplish his or her goalls.
  •  A formula or algorithm developed by Burns & Associates to assign funding to individuals according to one of five different levels or tiers, designated by letters A through E. 
  • A billing system that requires providers to document face-to-face time with clients in 15-minute increments in order for them to be reimbursed for day services.  

Since 2010,  BHDDH and the Executive Office of Human Services (EOHHS) have paid Burns & Associates about $1.4 million to introduce Project Sustainability, develop the equation, or algorithm, and monitor its use.

DOJ Cited "Seeming Conflict of Interest"

In challenging the state’s treatment of persons with disabilities in 2014, the Department of Justice found, at a minimum, “a seeming conflict of interest” in the way Rhode Island used the SIS as a “resource allocation tool”, because BHDDH both administered the assessment and determined the budgets.

The DOJ findings continued:

“The need to keep consumers’ resource allocations within budget may influence staff to administer the SIS in a way that reaches the pre-determined budgetary result.”

“Numerous persons stated that this lack of neutrality, and apparent tension between the need to assess the full spectrum of an individual’s support needs and state efforts to cut costs, has negatively. impacted the resources individually allocated to people with I/DD (intellectual or developmental disabilities “Further,” the DOJ said, “we received considerable feedback from parents, family members, advocates, direct support staff, and providers that the individuals administering the SIS lack the training, qualification, or experience working with individuals with I/DD necessary to make resource allocation decisions on behalf of individuals with I/DD.”  

The DOJ also said that “we find that several formative practical and procedural barriers exist under Project Sustainability that contribute to individuals’ inability to access the resources, including funding allocations, that they need to purchase services like supported employment and integrated day planning.”

And the department found inflexibility in the requirement that workers be “face to face” with clients for their employers to receive reimbursement for services. Through the consent decree, the “face to face” provision has been eliminated in a pilot program to help adults with developmental disabilities seek regular jobs in the community.

Families and service providers routinely appealed adverse funding allocations, and many of them were successful, resulting in supplemental payments for a year. But the following year, they received notice that the supplemental payments would be withdrawn, and the appeal process began all over again.

Until Stenning left office in 2015, parents and service providers were denied copies of the actual SIS scores. Some parents have said BHDDH officials told them the questionnaires, developed by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AAIDD), could not be released because they contained private propriety information.

That’s changed. Today developmental disability officials have acknowledged that the completed questionnaires are personal health care records that must be made available to patients or their guardians, according to federal law. BHDDH has never released the funding formula. 

Parents also have complained publicly that social workers administering the interviews either argued with them and with providers about their responses or that they wrote down scores different from the ones offered by family members and providers.

AAIDD Defends SIS

Margaret Nygren, executive director of AAIDD,  which created the SIS, said it is a “well-established, scientifically valid, replicable tool” designed to measure support needs, and those who administer it must complete a “very rigorous training program” that includes an “annual recheck to make sure they are not drifting what we are training them to do.”

“It is certainly possible someone could get through the training and not apply what they’ve learned,” she said. “It’s not the kind of thing we’d like to see happen,” Nygren said. But she suggested it would be the rare exception rather than the rule.

In December, 2015, Wayne Hannon, then Deputy Secretary of EOHHS for Administration, tried to get a handle on the amount of money that BHDDH spent on supplemental payments outside the regular funding authorization process. These supplemental payments are not reflected as a separate line item in the budget.

Hannon asked Burns & Associates to figure out how much money the state could save if all the supplemental payments were eliminated. In a nine-page memo, the consultants concluded that the state could save a total of $13 million if all the supplemental payments were curtailed, but they stopped short of recommending such a move, saying they did not have enough information to know if the supplements were in fact warranted or used.

In the analysis that led to the conclusion, Burns & Associates' figures suggested there was a great deal of variability in SIS scores, even though the needs of particular individuals usually can be expected to remain fairly constant over time. For example, about 40 percent of those who had been assessed twice over a three-year period, or 726 of 1,798 individuals, had a change in funding levels the second time around, according to the consultants. In a smaller sample of 599 individuals, Burns & Associates said about 54 percent of funding authorizations decreased and the remainder increased.

AAIDD’s Nygren, who saw the memo, said the changes have to do with the funding algorithm created by the state, not the SIS itself. A small change in SIS scores could result in a change in funding, depending on how the formula is constructed, she said. BHDDH has not responded to requests for the formula. 

SIS And Funding Formula Updated    

The extent to which re-assessments generated changes in funding authorizations, whether up or down, raised eyebrows when they came to the attention of state developmental disability officials in the summer of 2016. 

At the time, the state had just promulgated a new policy declaring that the SIS would be administered solely on the basis of an individual’s need for support, in response to a federal court order that had been issued to enforce the consent decree.

 Meanwhile, Jane Gallivan, an experienced administrator of developmental disability services, had just been hired as a consultant and interim director of developmental disabilities. 

 Gallivan later recommended the state switch to an updated version of the SIS, which she said she believed would be more accurate in capturing clients’ needs, particularly for those requiring behavioral and medical supports. Burns & Associates also was re-hired to re-tool the funding formula.

The conversion to the so-called SIS-A included the retraining of all the interviewers and was launched in November, 2016, in the hope that the number of appeals – and supplemental payments – will come down.  Initial reports on the results of the SIS-A indicate that overall, they result in higher funding authorizations, according to developmental disability officials.

In the meantime, the current BHDDH budget allows for $18.5 million for supplemental payments, but in the first three quarters of the fiscal year the department went $3 million over that authorization, according to a recent House fiscal presentation. And Governor Raimondo seeks $22 million in supplemental payments in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Taking in these numbers on overruns in the supplemental payments at a recent Senate Finance Committee hearing, Sen. Louis DiPalma told BHDDH officials to “look at the equation” that assigns funding authorizations to adults with developmental disabilities.

DiPalma and Rep. Teresa A. Tanzi, D-Narragansett and South Kingstown, have sponsored companion legislation that would make developmental disability caseload part of the semi-annual caseload estimating conference, used by both the executive and legislative branches of government to gauge expenses for Medicaid and public assistance.

DiPalma also has sponsored a separate bill that would require the SIS to be administered by an independent third party to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

AAIDD recommends that states take steps to ensure “conflict-free” administration of the SIS, a point noted by the DOJ in its 2014 findings.

Court Monitor Has A Say

The independent court monitor in the implementation of the consent decree would go a step further and uncouple the SIS from the funding mechanism altogether.

The monitor’s reports to the U.S. District Court say the SIS should be used for “person-centered planning,” a bedrock principle of the consent decree, which puts the focus on the needs and preferences of individuals, rather than trying to fit their services into a pre-determined menu of choices, as is now the case.

The monitor, Charles Moseley has said the SIS should be used as a guide for developing an individualized program of services, and then funding should be applied to deliver those services. Currently, the funding defines the scope of the services.

Moseley has put the state on a quarterly schedule of progress reports toward implementing “person-centered planning.”                

The changes have as-yet undefined budget implications for the state in the future.

Tom Kane, CEO of AccessPoint RI, a provider, explained to a subcommittee of the House Finance Committee in a recent hearing that it will be inherently more expensive to provide services in the community than it has been historically to have one person working with ten clients in a room in a sheltered workshop or day program.

There is now only slightly more in the private developmental disability system than there was in 2010, he said.  (The General Assembly has approved $218.3 million in reimbursements to private providers for the current budget cycle, or $10.2 million more than was spent in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010, according to state budget figures.)

“There are more people in the system” and “the requirements of the consent decree are far more extensive than the kind of supports we were providing,”  Kane said.

He said he’s “definitely in favor” of Governor Gina Raimondo’s budget proposal, which would add $10 million to the system over the next 15 months, but he believes the available funding is only half of what is needed to stabilize private provider agencies and ensuring their clients get the “services they deserve and require.”