RI DD Rate Reviewers Asked To Fix Payment System That Still Promotes Segregated Care

By Gina Macris

This article was updated June 17 with a response from the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals.

The Rhode Island state agency which funds services for adults with developmental disabilities has acknowledged for the first time that its underlying reimbursement system for private providers is structurally deficient for complying with the Americans With Disabilities Act as required by a 2014 federal civil rights decree.

While the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) has pursued services promoting greater independence for adults with developmental disabilities, “the underlying reimbursement system has lagged,” according to a statement of the scope of work outlined for a consortium tasked with reviewing reimbursement rates.

The rate structure “is grounded in past practices and cost bases associated with the provision of services in the sheltered workshop setting,” BHDDH officials wrote.

“In order to adequately meet consumers’ needs, providers have been paid supplemental funds to address the deficiency in the payment rates,” BHDDH explained in the contract.

BHDDH has a contract with the New England States Consortium Systems Organization (NESCSO) to update a rate structure that has not been reviewed for eight years and to suggest alternates to the current payment methods.

In describing the work ahead for NESCSO, BHDDH says it is:

“seeking to further promote the development of a service system and associated reimbursement arrangements that maximize the opportunity for persons with DD to participate to the fullest possible in community-based activities.”

In 2014 the U.S. Department of Justice found that the reimbursement system incentivized segregated care in sheltered workshops and day centers in violation of the Integration Mandate of the ADA, reinforced by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Olmstead decision.

The Obama administration began vigorously enforcing the Olmstead decision in 2009, but the consent decree in Rhode Island was the first settlement that addressed segregation in daytime services rather than housing.

The consent decree provides a decade-long period of federal oversight of the state’s efforts to change the system. Enforcement of the consent decree entered its sixth year April 9. It will take at least another year for changes in rates and payment methods to go into effect, with the approval of the General Assembly. Enforcement of the decree is set to expire in 2024, but the state would have to show substantial compliance before federal oversight ends.

While some improvements in services have been made, the contract with NESCSO indicates that BHDDH officials believe the reimbursement system has held back compliance efforts.

Staffing Ratios Hinder Needed Flexibility

The underlying problem, said the BHDDH director in an interview, is a rule that requires a ratio of 60 percent funding for community-based activities and 40 percent funding for center-based daytime care in each client’s individual authorization.

The contract language alludes to this situation in describing staffing ratios. It says two areas of “particular focus” are daytime rates paid for employment-related and non-work services. In sheltered settings, for example, there might be one worker for every ten clients. But in the community the number of clients for each worker would have to be much smaller.

Rebecca Boss, the BHDDH director, said the department seeks a “predictable rate structure not driven by very precise ratios” but rather by the needs and preferences of individual clients.

The supplemental payments intended to mitigate the deficiencies in the underlying system “are an increasing portion of overall payments, reflecting the inadequacy of the current rates,” the contract language explained.

According to department officials, that language was meant to refer to the historical trend, in which supplemental payments had increased to as much as $7.8 million in a three-month period.

Boss froze new approvals at the end of 2017, except for emergency health and safety considerations and a couple other narrowly defined exceptions, to try to curb a multi-million dollar deficit at a time when Governor Gina Raimondo seemed inclined to cut developmental disability services significantly.

According to records BHDDH turns in to the General Assembly every month, the supplemental payments from January through March of this year have declined to $3.6 million, about half the total for the same period in 2018.

Historically, supplemental payments have been awarded only when consumers, families, or providers have made successful appeals of individual authorizations. The appeals, which often have required considerable time and energy, must be made annually, or the authorization reverts to the original amount. The appeals process is but one facet of what many families and providers describe as an unstable system.

Kerri Zanchi, director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities, said supplemental payments are still a big part of reimbursements to private providers, and BHDDH wants NESCSO and its consultants to scrutinize them as part of the review process.

Study Commission To Hear from NESCSO

The rate review coincides with the work of a special legislative commission studying the current reimbursement system, called Project Sustainability.

On June 18, the commission will meet to hear presentations about employment and transportation issues from Scott Jensen, director of the Department of Labor and Training; and from Scott Avedesian, CEO of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority.

On June 25, the executive director of NESCSO, Elena Nicolella, is scheduled to appear before the commission to give an update on the rate review now being conducted by four consultants under NESCSO’s supervision.

In the meantime, some commission members have given BHDDH their own statements on how they think consultants should approach the work and their ideas for a new system of services that allow consumers and their families to shape the way state funds are used.

A spokeswoman for providers has urged NESCSO and its consultants to gain a thorough understanding of what it costs for a private agency to provide services under the terms of recently-revised regulations for provider operations and quality certification standards.

These bureaucratic steps are part of the state’s efforts to comply with the consent decree and the federal Medicaid Home And Community Based Final Rule (HCBS). Like the consent decree, HCBS embraces the integration mandate of the ADA, but it is a nationwide rule applying to all community-based services funded by Medicaid.

Paradox In Unspent Funds For Employment

Tina Spears, executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, warned that simply looking at the way providers utilize the current reimbursement model, which is based on segregated care, will not give the complete picture of the needs of the system.

She did not mention specifics, but a case in point is the performance-based supported employment program, which was funded by a $6.8 million allocation made by the General Assembly in the fiscal year that began July 1, 2016. That allocation still has not been completely spent.

Excluding a start-up period from January through June of 2017, the program spent $2.5 million the first year, from July 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018. It’s expected to spend $4 million in the fiscal year ending June 30, according to a BHDDH spokesman.

Providers initially complained that they could not meet their costs with the series of one-time incentives offered by the program, which was built on same reimbursement system designed for center-based care.

Incentives and enhancements were made more generous during the second year, and negotiations are underway for a third year of the program.

In the meantime, Rhode Island’s last sheltered workshop closed last year and BHDDH says community-based, competitive employment has increased to about 29 percent of adults with developmental disabilities.

A study released by two nationwide associations of providers in January said Rhode Island’s rate of competitive employment was about 19 percent, but that figure dated from 2015. The “Case for Inclusion” ranked Rhode Island 32nd in the nation on its integration efforts. It was compiled by ANCOR - the American Network of Community Options and Resources, and UCP – United Cerebral Palsy.

Consumers Want More Control Over Money Assigned To Them

Kevin Nerney, executive director of the Rhode Island Developmental Disabilities Council, and Kelly Donovan, who receives state-funded supports, each called for a system that allows greater consumer control of state funding and greater flexibility in the way it is used.

The state should “ensure that funding is available across all imaginable living arrangements,” particularly in situations where a consumer owns or rents a property and a caregiver or family would like to move in. The caregiver or consumer should be allowed a stipend, as is permitted in many other states, to make this type of arrangement viable, Nerney said.

The state should also ensure that adults with developmental disabilities have the support of familiar staff while they are hospitalized to avoid the trauma of being in an unfamiliar environment where they can neither make themselves understood nor understand what is being said to them, Nerney said.

In addition, the state should adopt a way to assess the support a person receives from family or friends in deciding funding levels. While most of those receiving services from the Division of Developmental Disabilities live in the family home, that home may include a large healthy family, a single aging parent, or a grandparent with Alzheimer’s and a sibling who also has significant needs for support, Nerney said.

And he called for more funding for those hired by self-directed consumers and their families to write support plans necessary to qualify for state funding. The expectations for the plan writers have multiplied over the last 20 years but the fees remains the same at $500 for the initial plan and $350 for an annual renewal, Nerney said. There should be an allowance for self-directed families who need ongoing coordination of services, he said.

Kelly Donovan, who herself receives services from BHDDH gave a concrete example of what greater control and flexibility might look like.

She said people should be able to enjoy an outing without:

A: going home early because a staffer’s shift ends

B: taking everyone in your group home with you, even if one or more of them really didn’t want to come.

“People should be able to have their designated time to themselves and opportunities to be involved in community activities,” she said.

The public may submit comments or questions about the rate review process by email at BHDDH.AskDD@bhddh.ri.gov. Please copy and paste the email address into your email program, or get a link by visiting http://www.bhddh.ri.gov/developmentaldisabilities/community_forums_event.php

In response to this article, Randal Edgar, a spokesman for BHDDH, released the following statement on June 17:

The article published on June 12 on the Olmstead Updates blog presents a misleading picture of Rhode Island’s system of care for adults with developmental disabilities.

The headline claims this system “promotes segregated care.”

This assertion is false.

The article attempts to back up this assertion up by referring to language in a state contract with a consultant that is reviewing the rates paid to DD providers. But in referencing the contract language, the article misreads the intent of that language.

The contract language speaks from a historical perspective. It states that while the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals has pursued the development of “a services system that supports greater independence” for the DD population, “the underlying reimbursement system has lagged.” It goes on to say that the “basis for the development of prevailing rates is grounded in past practices and cost bases associated with the provision of services in the sheltered workshop setting.”

Acknowledging that the existing rates are grounded in past practices and need to be updated is not the same as saying the system as it operates today promotes segregated care, and in saying it does, the article ignores and/or minimizes many steps the department has taken to improve the care provided to adults with developmental disabilities. It should be noted that the reporter met with BHDDH officials for more than an hour but did not press this assertion and obtain their view of the contract language.

The article is wrong again when it states that department froze new approvals for supplemental payments in 2017 to help offset a budget deficit. The department reduced those approvals, applying more stringent standards, not because of a possible budget deficit but because this made sense from a policy standpoint.

Finally, the article gives voice to people outside the department, asking them to describe where the DD care system should go, without giving BHDDH officials a chance to share their vision. In the process, it conveys a false impression that BHDDH officials are not passionate about moving this system forward.

We are disappointed that the article did not present a more complete and accurate picture.

Separately, the public may submit comments or questions about the rate review process by email at BHDDH.AskDD@bhddh.ri.gov. Please copy and paste the email address into your email program, or get a link by visiting http://www.bhddh.ri.gov/developmentaldisabilities/community_forums_event.php

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.

Ongoing RI DD Rate Review To Be Aired Thursday At Project Sustainability Commission Meeting

By Gina Macris

Elena Nicolella, executive director of a non-profit consortium overseeing a review of the rates Rhode Island pays private providers for services to adults wlth developmental disabilities, will address the Project Sustainability Commission Thursday, April 25.

Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, the commission chairman, said Nicolella will explain the scope of the work, the timetable, and the documentation that is required under the terms of the consortium’s contract with the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH).

Nicolella is executive director of the New England States Consortium Systems Organization (NESCSO), a non-profit collaboration involving five of the six New England states that aims to promote policies and programs that will serve the needs of the region in a cost-effective manner, according to its website. Only Maine does not belong to the regional group.

DiPalma said he expects that “everything will be on the table” about Project Sustainability, the fee-for-service payment system which providers say hamstrings their ability to offer integrated services in the community as required by a 2014 federal consent decree.

Project Sustainability, enacted by the General Assembly in 2011, forced providers to cut workers’ pay to minimum wage levels, wiping out established career ladders that helped bring continuity to the care of adults with developmental disabilities.

In November, Mark Podrazik, the consultant who advised the state in planning Project Sustainability, told DiPalma’s commission that reimbursement rates should be reviewed every five years.

Thursday’s Project Sustainability Commission meeting featuring Nicolella will begin at 2 p.m. in the Senate Lounge at the State House, according to DiPalma.

NESCSO has a $1.3 million contract with BHDDH over an 18-month period to review private provider rates for developmental disabilities and behavioral healthcare service. The contract also calls on NESCSO to provide technical assistance in connection with creating out-patient services for patients of Eleanor Slater Hospital.

The work in developmental disabilities represents about $700,000 of that total, according to a BHDDH spokeswoman.

RI To Review "Project Sustainability" Funding Model For DD Services With Help From NESCSO

By Gina Macris

The state of Rhode Island has hired NESCSO, the non-profit New England States Consortium Systems Organization, to review the fee-for-service Medicaid funding structure used to reimburse private providers of services for adults with developmental disabilities since 2011.

The project, launched by the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH), represents a key step toward meeting the overall objectives of a 2014 consent decree which requires the state to create a community-based system of services to correct violations of the integration mandate of the Americans With Disabilities (ADA.)

The current fee-for-service reimbursement model, called Project Sustainability, incentivizes facility-based, segregated services, according to findings of the U.S. Department of Justice which led to the consent decree.

Project Sustainability, accompanied by $26 million in budget cuts effective July 1, 2011, resulted in drastic wage reductions among private service providers, but raising worker pay alone will not fix the problem.

Project Sustainability also was set up to fund staffing for groups of people engaged in activities in one place but didn’t provide for the degree of supervision or transportation needed to individualize services in the community on a broad scale, as required by the Olmstead decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. That decision re-affirmed the integration mandate of the ADA.

In sheltered settings, for example, the ratio of direct care workers to clients might have been set in the funding formula at 1 to 10, but additional staffing would be needed to support that many people in the community, according to language in the contract between NESCSO and BHDDH.

The contract says supplemental payments have been used to “address the deficiency in the payment rates.” These supplemental payments “are an increasing portion of overall payments, reflecting the inadequacy of the current rates,” the contract said.

It says BHDDDH is seeking technical assistance from NESCSO in reviewing the best strategies for achieving an integrated, individualized system of services that complies with both the consent decree and the Medicaid Home and Community-Based Services Final Rule.

The consent decree affects daytime services, with an emphasis on competitive employment for adults with developmental disabilities.

The Home and Community-Based Final Rule (HCBS) is Medicaid’s interpretation of what the ADA’s integration mandate should look like in practice. Unlike the consent decree, it addresses residential services, calling for options that enable clients to live in less restrictive settings than group homes.

BHDDH also asks NESCSO to help it develop an “optimal and balanced system of services and payments” that will promote individually-designed programs according to the preferences and direction of the consumers themselves.

As part of the overall picture, the design and oversight of individual service plans would be separated from funding and actual delivery of supports to protect the interests of consumers and comply with the HCBS Final Rule in so-called “conflict-free case management.”

The consent decree also calls for a separation between funding, case management, and delivery of services. Currently, BHDDH is responsible for both funding and case management.

The total contract, designed for an 18-month period, will cost nearly $1,366,000 in federal and state Medicaid funds. That sum includes the entire developmental disabilities project, a rate review for behavioral healthcare services, and technical assistance at Eleanor Slater Hospital in connection with developing outpatient services for patients.

A BHDDH spokeswoman said Feb. 28 that the amount to be spent in the current fiscal year on the developmental disabilities portion of the project, originally set at about $400,000, will be scaled back to $200,000, because the work did not begin as anticipated in January. The fiscal year ends June 30.

There is $500,000 budgeted for the developmental disabilities work in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

BHDDH director Rebecca Boss said the department “Is pleased to partner” with NESCSO.

“NESCSO offers BHDDH the expertise of the other New England states and brings a team with background in specialized population-based needs and solutions, financial expertise, analytical depth and knowledge of federal regulation, resources and compliance requirements,” she said.

NESCSO is a non-profit collaboration among the health and human services agencies of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Vermont and the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Through shared information and expertise, it works to promote policies and programs that will serve the needs of New England states in a cost-effective manner, according to its website.

State Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, the chairman of special legislative commission studying Project Sustainability, said the review of the funding model will be “pivotal” in shaping the future of the private system of developmental disability services.

“I give the department (BHDDH) credit” for moving forward with the project, DiPalma said. NESCSO, led by a former Rhode Island Medicaid director, Elena Nicolella, is held in high regard, he said.

At the same time, DiPalma said it is imperative that the review of the funding structure begin immediately and be completed in time for Governor Gina Raimondo to submit her budget proposal to the General Assembly for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2020.

Expert testimony already given to the Project Sustainability commission made it clear that a review of the funding structure was long overdue, DiPalma said. With BHDDH already taking that step, the commission might still say that a rate review should be conducted every five years, as recommended by healthcare consultant Mark Podrazik.

Podrazik is a principal in Burns & Associates, which was hired to help BHDDH develop Project Sustainability. Testifying in November, he made it clear that the state ignored some of the firm’s key recommendations, instead shaping the funding structure through a frenzy to control costs.