R.I. Tightens Controls In Wake Of Embezzlement Of More Than $220K In DD Client Funds

By Gina Macris

See correction at end of article

A now-deceased Rhode Island state employee embezzled a total of $220,602 from a checking account held in escrow for residents of the state-run group home system, the state’s Office of Internal Audit has reported. 

The employee, Kevin B. Ward, died Nov. 26 at age 60, a few weeks after the State Controller flagged a suspicious transaction from the client checking account Ward controlled on behalf of residents of RICLAS, or Rhode Island Community Living and Supports, a part of the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH).. 

Rhode Island State Police investigated a suspicious death of a BHDDH employee last November that was ruled a suicide, according to a statement a state police spokeswoman made to the Providence Journal Dec. 13. 

On April 8, the spokeswoman, Laura Meade Kirk, said State Police could make no additional comment apart from the fact that its investigation closed without criminal charges. 

State officials have described the situation involving Ward’s death as tragic

“While no RICLAS program recipients were directly affected, this is a tragic situation for many of our state employees who knew and worked with the late Kevin Ward,” said BHDDH director Rebecca Boss after the state Office of Internal Audit completed its report April 3. Ward had been a financial manager for RICLAS from February, 2005 until his death. 

The state has made good on the funds belonging to the RICLAS residents and has recouped more than $70,000 from its insurance company, according to a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The state also is exploring legal avenues to recover the rest of the money. 

The suspicious activity was discovered Nov. 2 by the state’s Controller, who, along with the Treasurer’s Office, was in the midst of a broader effort to tighten internal controls over the custody of state-owned checking accounts, the director of the Office of Internal Audit, Dorothy Pascale, wrote in an April 3 memo to Boss.

The OMB spokeswoman, Brenna McCabe, elaborated: 

Since November, the state’s Office of “Accounts and Control has worked with our finance units across all agencies to implement and reinforce measures to help prevent this from happening again.” 

Among other oversight and control measures, she said, new rules require two persons to sign checks and prevent those who signed the checks from cashing them. 

Ward had been authorized both to sign and cash checks on behalf of the State of Rhode Island.

According to Pascale’s memo, Ward transferred money from the RICLAS’ residents’ account to another, long-dormant, state-owned RICLAS checking account at Bank of America, and from there, to his own Citizens Bank checking account. 

Ward had complete control over the Bank of America account that paid directly into his own Citizens Bank account. He even received the account statements from Bank of America.  

Pascale said investigators found records of 21 checks totaling $220,602 payable to Kevin B. Ward that were deposited in Ward’s Citizens Bank checking account from August, 2011 to November, 2018. The check that triggered the investigation had been made out to Ward for $4,500 on June 20, 2017 but was not spotted for more than 16 months. 

On August 1, 2011, the state-owned Bank of America account had a balance of $38,476, but the bank does not retain records longer than seven years, so investigators were not able to gather evidence of account activity prior to that date, Pascale said.

Ward skimmed funds from a client account containing social security-related income used to help pay for the state’s cost of operating RICLAS facilities, in effect serving as contributions toward room, board, utilities and the like.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the purpose of the client account.

RI Governor's DD Budget Would Add $8.7 Million in Medicaid Funding For Wages, Higher Costs

By Gina Macris

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo’s recently released budget proposal would add nearly $8.7 million in new funding to the system of privately-run services for adults with developmental disabilities in the next 17 months, through June 30, 2020.

Most of that overall $8.7-million-increase, $6.4 million in federal and state Medicaid money, would fund raises for workers of some three dozen private agencies that provide developmental disability services under contract with the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH).

The raises would take effect July 1. Funding for the added wages - an estimated 44 cents an hour – is carved out in the budget bill for Fiscal Year 2020 that Raimondo has submitted to the General Assembly.

The budget bill also requires that almost $1.6 million in federal-state Medicaid funds be earmarked for technical assistance to private providers changing from segregated care to community-based, integrated service to comply with a 2014 federal consent decree.

The current overall spending level for developmental disabilities, $271.7 million, would increase to $273.1 million for the budget ending June 30. In the next fiscal cycle beginning July 1, the spending ceiling would rise to nearly $280.9 million, including federal, state and miscellaneous sources of revenue.

The Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD) draws more than half the resources assigned to BHDDH – which is currently budgeted for a grand total of almost $422.5 million. Under Raimondo’s plan, the bottom line for the entire department would grow to about $448.5 million in Fiscal 2020 – an increase of $26 million, including about $19.7 million in supplemental funding for the existing budget.

Developmental disability services are financed through the federal-state Medicaid program, with the federal government paying nearly 53 cents on the dollar.

The governor’s executive summary, however, tends to focus on the state outlay alone. It says $3.1 million in state funds would be earmarked to cover an existing deficit and an additional $3.3 million would be set aside in the fiscal year beginning July 1 for increased caseload costs.

Those budget items, combined with the state’s share of the $6.4 million proposed wage increase - $3 million – add up to $9.4 million, nearly twice the overall $5 million in new state tax dollars that Raimondo would apply to developmental disabilities for the remainder of the current fiscal year and the next one.

The state would have to use savings in other areas to fully fund Raimondo’s plan for developmental disabilities, but neither the budget language nor the governor’s narrative spells out which cost-cutting measures would fill the gap.

The first-quarter spending report for BHDDH put the projected deficit in developmental disabilities at a total of $7.6 million for the current fiscal year, including federal and state funding.

The updated report for the second quarter will not be ready until Jan. 31, according to BHDDH officials.

But at a recent press briefing on the budget, Rebeca Boss, the BHDDH director, said she is satisfied that the governor’s proposal will enable the department to balance its current budget.

Among other things, the plan would restore money in the current budget that the DDD otherwise would have saved if it had won federal approval for a “Health Home,” a Medicaid option featuring a managed-care approach that also provides for a third-party to coordinate services for individuals.

The Health Home would help DDD comply with a Medicaid rule for Home and Community Based Services which requires case management to be separate from funding or service delivery. Currently DDD is responsible both for funding and for case management, which Medicaid perceives as a conflict of interest.

Boss said BHDDH has not yet submitted an application for a Health Home option for developmental disabilities. The budget assumes that a health home plan for developmental disabilities will be approved and go into operation during Fiscal 2020, which begins July 1.

Medicaid will reimburse 90 percent of the state outlay for health homes for a maximum of two years. After that period, the reimbursement rate for health homes will drop back to the regular rate for Rhode Island, whatever it may be at that time..

To help close the current deficit, the governor recommended an additional $273,412 in state revenue for BHDDH to pay homemaker licensed practical nurses who work with adults with developmental disabilities. The Executive Office of Human Services granted them a slightly higher pay increase than BHDDH had budgeted and the General Assembly had approved.

In adding $3.3 million in state revenue for “caseload” expenditures for the 2020 fiscal year, Raimondo’s executive summary said she “accepts the Department’s (BHDDH’s) most up to date projections” on costs, “ensuring no changes to services for DD consumers and continued financing to improve achievement of consent decree mandated services.”

Last year at this time, Raimondo had proposed cutting a total of more than $18 million in federal-state funding from developmental disability services, with a spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget saying the proposed reduction was based on calculations made from “estimated growth rates in the cost of providing services.” She did not elaborate.

Raimondo, pressed by the independent court monitor overseeing the implementation of a 2014 federal civil rights consent decree, eventually restored the funding and pledged the state’s support of the work ordered by the federal court.

The consent decree requires Rhode Island to correct violations of the integration mandate of the Americans With Disabilities Act, reinforced by the 1999 Olmstead decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, by ending its over-reliance on sheltered workshops and segregated day care.

This year, according to Boss, BHDDH submitted cost projections on the basis of actual claims, as directed by the Executive Office of Health And Human Services, rather than individual funding authorizations.

In the process of updating projections, the data was refined to remove claims that had been double-counted on Medicaid rolls of both BHDDH and EOHHS, according to the executive summary of the budget.

For Fiscal 2020, the governor’s budget summary highlighted three additional areas for savings:

  • ·A continuation of “residential rebalancing”, a multi-year effort to reduce the number of people in group homes, a cost-saving measure that also is intended to provide more “community-based placements such as shared living.” The budget projects $1.5 million in “residential rebalancing” in 2020.

  • Closure of one state-operated group home for an estimated savings of nearly $92,000. The staff in that location will move to other sites, reducing the need for overtime in the state-run system.

  • So-called “right sizing” of staffing at the state-run group home system to realize additional projected savings of $202,721. “Right-sizing” means staffing patterns will be reassessed and employees will re-bid jobs. This change is expected to reduce overnight staffing and further reduce overtime costs.

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.