RI DD System Needs Stable Funding For Quality Services and Productive Lives - Commission

By Gina Macris

A successful model for funding Rhode Island’s developmental disability services would be more complex than simply increasing workers’ wages, members of a special legislative commission agreed at a meeting May 6.

Kelly Donovan, a commission member who herself receives services, said the work of the support person is “not a job; it’s a commitment.“

In a high-quality system of services, Donovan said, direct support professionals and the people they serve have a relationship. They develop strong bonds.

The discussion nevertheless returned repeatedly to the lack of funding that permeates the system, with rules that commission members say make it rigid and unresponsive to those needing services.

Peter Quattromani, CEO of United Cerebral Palsy of Rhode Island, said agencies that ask their employees to “ commit” to the persons they serve also require them to commit themselves to “a life of poverty” because employers, dependent on state funding, can’t pay salaries commensurate with professional work.

As a result, Quattromani said, the agencies are hiring “very temporary employees.”

“We don’t appreciate what it takes on the part of the individual to turn their life over to a staff person,” Quattromani said. Every time there’s turnover, there’s a new intrusion in that person’s life, he said.

The CEO of West Bay Residential Services, Gloria Quinn, said “I can think of examples when people go along with people and don’t know them. It gets complicated to do the right thing at the right time.”

But West Bay Residential has an annual staff turnover rate of 34 percent and a job vacancy rate of 15 percent, said Quinn, who recommended a system that is adequately funding, “including appropriate compensation for a well-trained workforce.”

At the same time, she said, there are employees who are doing an “incredibly important and skillful job” even without the compensation they deserve.

Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, the commission chairman, said there is a great disparity in pay in two parallel systems of services.

“We do value the profession” of supporting adults with developmental disabilities, he said, as long as it is the state-operated network of group homes and facilities called RICLAS, short for Rhode Island Community Living and Supports. But private providers, who perform the same direct support work, are not valued, DiPalma said, referring to the state’s chronic underfunding of these agencies.

He said he never saw the situation quite that way until Tom Kane, CEO of AccessPoint RI, framed it in those terms during a recent budget hearing before the Senate Finance Committee.

RICLAS workers start at about $18 an hour, while entry-level workers in the private system average about $11.40 an hour. On an annual basis, the starting salary at RICLAS is $37,291, according to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH). As state employees, RICLAS workers also get a full package of benefits.

DiPalma said that when the current fee-for-service reimbursement model was enacted by the General Assembly in 2011, the “right questions weren’t asked. We can’t let that happen again.”

He said he firmly believes that today, all legislators would say they value the work done in supporting adults with developmental disabilities, but “the critical thing is ‘how do we get there’? “ He alluded to a reimbursement model in which wages reflect the value of the work.

In Kelly Donovan’s vision of the future, adults with developmental disabilities will receive training and support in making their own decisions in an informed manner. And support persons will respect those decisions, she said.

Kate Sherlock, a commission member and lawyer with the Rhode Island Disability Law Center, concurred.

For a long time, the role of the staff person has been to “speak up for people,” she said. Instead, staff should facilitate decisions made by clients.

But clients “do not have the real opportunity to decide what they want, because there are not enough options,” Sherlock said. Decisions should not be “either-or,” she said. “It shouldn’t be ‘do you want chocolate or vanilla ice cream.’ “

“People want to live with people they choose. They want a job they like and they want to make a decent amount of money,” Sherlock said.

Enabling clients to make meaningful decisions about belonging to their communities and engaging in activities they want, as well as giving them the opportunity to eat healthy foods and be active and fit will at the same time elevate the staff role into a position that can have greater impact and be more desirable – even fun, Sherlock said.

The Disability Law Center supports a bill that would give legal standing to adults who support those who need assistance in decision-making, Sherlock said, but the measure is encountering difficulties in the Senate. DiPalma said he would look into it.

Commission members agree that Rhode Island needs to abandon its fee-for-service reimbursement system in favor of one that gives clients an annual budget with flexibility to spend it on what they want and need to enable them to live regular lives in their communities, in accordance with a 2014 consent decree and federal Medicaid rules reinforcing the Integration mandate of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

Not only is the current system under-funded but it is saddled by rules that make it too restrictive, they say.

Among the needs discussed May 6 are funding for:

  • training and career paths for staffers

  • Technology, such as smart phones and other devices and software, that can help clients become more independent from staff.

  • ·Easier access to transportation, which might include Uber and Lyft options to lessen clients’ dependence on staff time, which can be better used providing other types of supports

  • Better access to affordable housing

  • More intensive community-based mental health services that can prevent psychiatric hospitalizations.

In addition, the developmental disabilities caseload must be counted in a way that better informs budget makers, according to Quinn, the CEO of West Bay Residential Services.

All the recommendations which members have presented through May 6 can be found here .

The next meeting will be May 22, when commission members are expected to continue presenting their recommendations.

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.

'Our Lives Turned Upside Down' When Daughter Entered RI Adult DD System, Mother Says

Sustainability+commission+Dec.+meeting+main+pic+cropped+.jpg

Louis DiPalma, Rebecca Boss, and Kerri Zanchi watch A. Anthony Antosh of Rhode Island College present consumer and family perspectives on the state’s services for adults with developmental disabilities Photo by Anne Peters

By Gina Macris

A Rhode Island Senate study commission spent nearly two hours Dec. 12 laying out a catalog of strengths and weaknesses in Rhode Island’s system for helping people with developmental disabilities.

But in the end, the personal stories of two mothers, Amy Kelly of Smithfield and Martha Costa of Portsmouth, focused the commission’s attention on the crises now unfolding for at least several families who are at their wits end.

In the catalogue, their experiences come under “residential services-need for specialized medical/behavioral residential models.”

For Amy Kelly, that means that every single service provider in Rhode Island – about three dozen - has turned away her 21 year-old daughter, who is autistic, has behavioral problems, and functions in many ways as a kindergartener.

“So now what do I do?” Kelly asked in a letter to the commission chairman, Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown. Kelly is a widow, and works fulltime. Her daughter, Kayla, was asked to leave the Trudeau Center in Warwick because of injuries to staff.

For a month now, Kayla has been at home all the time and her problematic behaviors have intensified, Kelly wrote. “She is out of her routine, asking for “friends,” “yellow bus,” “trip,” and other favorite things and experiences that she misses..

Kelly has been forced to choose “self-directed” services, meaning that she must find her own workers,“which is pretty much impossible,” she wrote to DiPalma.

And the Home Based Therapeutic Services that helped Kayla outside of school hours while she was still in special education are no longer available.

“I cannot believe there are no programs in RI for families in this situation!” Kelly wrote. “When my daughter turned 21 in May everything in our lives turned upside down.”

Martha Costa * courtesy of Capitol TV

Martha Costa * courtesy of Capitol TV

Martha Costa agreed. She attended the Commission hearing at the State House on behalf of her own family and five others in Portsmouth who have become friends as their children have faced behavioral challenges growing up and have aged out of the school system into purview of the state Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD).

As the mother of a 22 year-old man on the autism spectrum, she said her experience has been that once young people with complex needs turn 21, “there is really no place for them to go.”

The family might be told to go to a hospital, but with the exception of Butler Hospital in Providence, a mental health facility, “the hospital is horrible, because it’s just more trauma going there.”

The 21 year-old daughter of a friend of Costa’s had meltowns after her mother – her primary caregiver and the one who organized her services - died in September. The woman’s daughter, who has multiple disabilities, was hospitalized because there was “nowhere for her to go,” Costa said. The young woman was “restrained, medically and physically. It’s heartbreaking,” Costa said.

“It’s lucky you have good parents who are helping these kids, but you know, we’re all getting older and we’re not going to be able to,” she said. The aging of parents, who are often primary care givers, is a broad concern among families, according to survey results.

“There are some kids who don’t have that parent support and they’re on the street,” Costa said. “That’s sad, when they can be a very productive part of our community.”

Kerri Zanchi, the state’s Director of Developmental Disabilities, thanked Costa for coming forward.

One of the biggest challenges in residential services, Zanchi said, is a dearth of specialized homes for individuals with behavioral and other complex needs, as well as a lack of therapists and other clinicians to give them the proper attention.

“There’s a huge need coming” as teenagers with complex disabilities leave schools, she said. “We need to know what that need is and we need to start working on it lot earlier than when they turn 21 and come into our system.”

Zanchi referred to the division’s Eligibility by 17 policy, which aims to give families, schools, and the adult system plenty of time to plan a smooth transition.

In the catalogue, one of the “challenges” the state officials listed in implementing the Eligibility by 17 policy is “resource and service difference for transitioning youth vs adult services.” In the summary that family and consumer representatives submitted, they commented that “transition from high school is a ‘nightmare.“

Zanchi continued her response to Costa. “We certainly recognize every day the crises we have to manage” in order to support the individuals involved and to try to grow the system’s capacity, she said.

And there are committed providers who are willing to help the state, but who also want to do that with the right staffing that will keep all individuals safe, Zanchi said. “We are all hands on deck. I know it probably doesn’t feel like enough,” she said.

Costa agreed. “ I understand what you’ve been doing and I know that everyone has been working hard . Still, it’s not enough,” she said.

Gloria Quinn, executive director of West Bay Residential Services, said her agency works very well with the state as a partner in exceptional situations, but it is extremely difficult as long as there there is a paucity of established expertise in the community that is accessible to the developmental disabilities providers.

“Very often we are creating something new, which takes an enormous amount of time,” Quinn said, and the funding is not enough. Most importantly, when the agency helps someone with increased needs it runs the risk of jeopardizing supports for other people, particularly in a residential setting, she said.

Peter Quattromani, President and CEO of United Cerebral Palsy Rhode Island, pointed to the low wages for direct care staff that frustrate all involved; those who love the work but can’t pay the bills, employers who can’t fill jobs, and consumers and families who can’t find suitable services.

“It’s an incredibly difficult job” , he said, and attracting staff is likewise very difficult, given the low wages.

Commission member Kelly Donovan, who herself receives services from DDD, had sparked the conversation by wondering aloud why those with serious behavioral problems have difficulty finding appropriate support.

She said she agreed with Quattromani and Costa, and she added another factor that she believes contributes to the problem: a societal stigma against those with a broad range of mental illnesses who exhibit aggressive behavior.

During the last month, commission members, representing the executive branch of government, private providers, and consumers and their families, were asked to complete a survey cataloging the strengths and weaknesses of the existing Medicaid fee-for-service system, called Project Sustainability.

The commission plans to use the results of the survey, named the “Current State Assessment,” to seek advice from outside experts and further the group’s deliberations in the future, according to a statement issued at DiPalma’s behest.

Directly or indirectly, a lack of adequate funding in various contexts permeated three summaries of the survey results, each one presented by a representative of each of the three segments of the commission. Transportation, for example, has become a bigger problem now that there is a greater emphasis on community-based services, which require more than the two daily trips usually allowed by individual funding authorizations. Families also cited difficulties of non-English speakers in getting information and services.

But Rebecca Boss, director of the state Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, also said the developmental disabilities budget has increased significantly since 2015, and listed advances made in the last two years, including:

  • $6.8 million for supported employment

  • two annual wage increases for direct care workers (The average hourly pay for front-line workers is $11.36 an hour)

  • the acquisition of a modern data management system

  • an increase in staff for quality management, implementation of a federal civil rights consent decree and for Medicaid-mandated Home and Community Based Services, as well as assistance in maximizing the existing budget.

She described the funding needs of the system as “dynamic.”

“We are engaging in discussions with our partners about what those needs are,” Boss said. “Governor (Gina) Raimondo has demonstrated a willingness to look at the system and make adjustments in the budget as we go along. So this is the process that we’re currently working on and engaging in those conversations on a regular basis.”

Raimondo is to present adjustments for the current budget, as well as her proposal for the next fiscal cycle, during the third week of January.

Christopher Semonelli, a commission member and the father of a teenager with complex needs, commented on the origins of Project Sustainability, which seemed to him like system “in a death spiral, and there was basically a feeding frenzy as to how to continue the system; how to go after the available funds.”

“I don’t think the legislative base should be blamed” for cutbacks that launched Project Sustainability in 2011, “because there was a lack of advocacy, “he said. “Strong advocacy could have prevented that from happening. That is huge and needs to be built going forward.”

DiPalma had the last word. Semonelli “made a great point about advocacy, but he shouldn’t let the General Assembly off the hook,” DiPalma said. “This is where the buck stops.”

Read the summaries presented at the meeting. For the state’s assessment, click here. For consumer and advocates’ comments, click here. For service providers’ comments, click here.