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.

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.







RI BHDDH Banking On Pilot With Higher Federal Match To Preserve Status Quo On DD Services

By Gina Macris

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo’s budget for developmental disability services creates a dramatic imperative for cost-cutting during the next fiscal year, one that would reduce spending by a total of $21.4 million in state and federal Medicaid funding.

Developmental disability administrators are exploring the option of a pilot Medicaid program with a 90 percent federal match called a Health Home to fill in the gap, but have not yet determined whether it is feasible, and if so, to what extent.

The overall $21.4 million reduction represents the difference between the governor’s $272.7-million proposal for resolving the current deficit in developmental disabilities and the lowered spending ceiling of $250.8 million for the next budget cycle. The budget reduction would involve slashing $18.3 million in reimbursements to private providers and cutting almost $3.1 million from the state-operated network of group homes effective July 1.

Raimondo’s budget numbers reflect a central tension between those who believe that the state simply spends too much on Medicaid entitlements and those who believe that services for adults who struggle daily to cope with developmental disabilities have been chronically underfunded.

Raimondo’s plan for the 2019 fiscal year beginning July 1 treats a multi-million dollar deficit in the existing budget as a one-time event, while the record of the last several years shows that the shhortfall in developmental disability spending is a chronic or structural problem in which the actual cost of authorized Medicaid services exceeds the budgeted figure. 

In addition, Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) officials have made it clear that an improved assessment for gauging individuals’ support needs has been resulting in higher per-capita costs. The conversion from the old assessment to the new one, a process which started in November, 2016, is expected to take another year or two to complete as clients of BHDDH undergo re-assessment, one by one.

BHDDH officials did discover incorrect implementation of some questions in the cases of 46 individuals assessed with the new instrument, resulting in financial authorizations that were higher than appropriate.

In a recent interview, Rebecca Boss, the BHDDH director, said assessors have been retrained on exactly when they should ask those follow-up questions about behavioral and medical needs. The department has no intention of discontinuing the assessment, she said.

For the 2019 fiscal year, BHDDH officials have an idea about how to bridge the funding gap that they say makes both fiscal and programmatic sense. 

 The idea involves a new approach to case management for adults with developmental disabilities called the Medicaid Health Home. The approach would bring in significant increases in federal money, but the concept has yet to be fleshed out.  And the state is only considering a pilot program to test the model.        

 Successfully implementing the new Health Home option appears to be the state’s only safety net to protect the developmental disability service system from service reductions, waiting lists or rate cuts to providers.

In her budget message, the governor promised to reduce neither eligibility nor services for Medicaid recipients, which include adults with developmental disabilities.  

Boss, the BHDDH director, was reminded of Raimondo’s pledge and was asked whether maintaining existing levels of eligibility and services would mean cutting reimbursement rates to service providers.

Boss said, “I don’t think the department is ready to go to a rate cut” to service providers.

Boss said BHDDH has scrapped a plan for reducing reimbursement rates to providers for a relatively small number of group home residents during the third quarter of the current fiscal year.

The state’s private providers of developmental disability services have been struggling financially for years.

“The fiscal stability of our providers is very important to us,” Boss said. BHDDH counts on its private providers to enable the state to comply with demands of a 2014 federal consent decree which invokes the integration mandate of the Americans With Disabilities Act in requiring Rhode Island to end its over reliance on segregated daytime care and sheltered workshops for adults with developmental disabilities.

Boss said the budget for the next fiscal year contains $6.8 million for  reimbursements to private providers for delivering supported employment services required by the consent decree. That’s $2 million more than is expected to be paid out by the end of the current fiscal year for employment-related supports.

The possibility of assigning case management – or coordination of care – to a third-party through a Medicaid Health Home is appealing to BHDDH officials for a couple of reasons.

Using the Medicaid Health Home approach could save the state significant sums of money in the short term. States can apply for an enhanced federal reimbursement rate of 90 cents for every state dollar expended for a maximum period of two years, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The current federal Medicaid reimbursement rate is a little more than 50 cents on the dollar.  Medicaid funds all developmental disability services in Rhode Island.

The concept also could solve a looming compliance problem with federal Medicaid regulations. 

In the next few years, the Medicaid Final Rule on Home and Community Based Services will require case management to be conflict-free. That means it must be divorced both from funding agencies, like BHDDH, and from providers who have a vested interest in billing for services.

BHDDH now has about 24 in-house social workers who coordinate services for some 3,700 adults with developmental disabilities.

The Health Home option, a managed-care arrangement which pays a per-capita rate, was first introduced as part of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and was crafted to encourage providers of medical care to take a holistic approach to their patients’ well-being.

To what extent the objectives of Health Homes encompass the social services has yet to be determined.

Boss indicated that many questions remain unresolved, such as:

  •  Which clients of the Division of Developmental Disabilities would qualify for Health Home coverage?
  •  What kind of entity would be equipped to serve as a Health Home for case management, and possibly other services?

According to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, (CMS) Medicaid clients eligible for Health Home coverage must have at least two chronic conditions, or one chronic condition, with risk for a second; or have a serious and persistent mental health condition.

 It is not unusual for individuals with cognitive challenges to also struggle with mental health issues or chronic medical conditions, or both. 

 CMS says that Health Homes may offer what it calls comprehensive care management, as well as care coordination, health promotion, comprehensive transitional care follow-up, patient and family support, and referral to community and social support services.

 Boss envisions a two-year pilot program for the Health Home model, beginning sometime in the next fiscal year.

Here are the overall budget numbers, which reflect all sources of funding for all developmental disability programming, both state operated and private:

Fiscal Year 2018

  •  Currently authorized: $256.9 million

                                           plus $15.3 million

  •  Governor’s proposal:  $272.2 million

            

Fiscal Year 2019

  • Governor’s FY 18 revised budget: $272.2 million

·                                                          minus $21.4 million

  •   Governor’s proposal:                   $250.8 million

 

The $21.4-million reduction includes a cut of nearly $12.5 million in state funding and a loss of $8.4 million in federal Medicaid reimbursements, according to the budget proposal. Other miscellaneous pluses and minuses round out the $21.4 million total cut.

After the first quarter of the current fiscal year, the Division of Developmental Disabilities was overspending at a pace of almost $26 million in federal and state Medicaid funding, including a state share of $12 million. 

But a second-quarter spending report shows the projected deficit for developmental disabilities has shrunk to about $15.7 million, including about $5.8 million provided by the state and nearly $9.9 million in federal funds.

The governor’s proposal covers nearly all of the $15.7 million shortfall. The remaining gap concerns a bookkeeping question: whether BHDDH or the Executive Office of Health and Human Services should be charged for the state’s contract with the independent consent decree monitor. 

Montanaro Says Rhode Island DD Services Have a Long Way to Go; She Won't Miss the Politics

Photo by Anne Peters 

Photo by Anne Peters 

By Gina Macris

When she became director of Rhode Island’s developmental disability agency in February,  2015,  Maria Montanaro inherited a budget with no relation to actual costs that was destined to run a deficit.

 She had to work with a state­-run system of group homes resistant to change, which she said exists to preserve jobs and not to serve clients.

And she had virtually no high-­level staff to form the leadership team necessary to move forward on compliance with the 2014 federal consent decree that requires Rhode Island to transform its services for adults with disabilities from segregated programs to integrated, community­-based supports.

A little more than a year into the job, as she was trying to reduce costs to hit a budget target that seemed plucked out of thin air, Montanaro realized that working in state government was not for her.

She said Governor Gina Raimondo and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Elizabeth Roberts, have been very supportive. After favorable state revenue estimates in May, Raimondo added to her budget request for developmental disabilities, and the General Assembly gave her most of what she wanted.

Nevertheless, the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) needed everything the governor asked for - a total of $16.9 million in new Medicaid funding, Montanaro said.

In March, Raimondo had asked her to stay on until the budget process was complete, Montanaro said, and she agreed.

In the end, the political aspect of running  BHDDH proved to be ‘very draining,” said Montanaro. Her last day at BHDDH is June 24.

“It takes an enormous amount of effort to move the levers” of state government, she said in a recent interview. Formerly CEO of Magellan Behavioral Healthcare in Iowa and the Thundermist Health Center in Rhode Island, Montanaro had never worked in state government before she came to BHDDH.

In public statements in recent weeks, Montanaro has helped start a new conversation about splitting up BHDDH – a change that could not come without legislation enacted by the General Assembly.

Accustomed to dealing with budgets as professional challenges, Montanaro said she found that trying to get funding in the right places is also a political issue in state government. That was “very difficult for me,” she said.

It was “enormously frustrating,” she said, to inherit a system of fragmented services and balance sheets always running millions of dollars in the red. (The deficit has averaged about $4.6 or $4.7 million for the past eight years.)

 She offered a frank analysis of what’s wrong at BHDDH, and the reasons the Division of Developmental Disabilities should be a separate entity, with its own commissioner, working hand in hand with the state’s Medicaid administrator.

 “Politics aside, there is a responsibility to adequately fund the system,” Montanaro said.

Actually, there are two systems of care in Rhode Island for adults with developmental disabilities, and Montanaro indicated that is one of the problems.

One division of BHDDH operates a network of 25 group homes serving roughly 150 adults with a staff of less than 400 employees. The division is known as Rhode Island Community Living and Supports (RICLAS).

BHDDH also contracts with about two dozen private agencies which, in turn, hire some 4000 workers to serve roughly  3,600 clients day and night, including some 1,120 adults with intellectual challenges who live in about 250 group homes.

Montanaro said the one good thing about the state­-run homes is that employees are paid adequately. Their pay ranges from $15 to $25 an hour. Direct support workers in the private sector make minimum wage or a little higher -  an average of about $11.50 an hour. Burnout is high, and turnover runs an average of about 35 percent, according to testimony presented to the House Finance Committee last month.

 “RICLAS as a provider system needs to make changes, and it’s very hard to enact change with a unionized workforce with very rigid views on change,” she said. “We have a lot of limitations in negotiating those changes. Do we need a state-­run residential system?” Montanaro says she thinks not.

“Why not do that in the private sector; use contracts and incentives in the private sector to make sure we get people what they need,” Montanaro said.

“We should not be running a system to employ people. We should be running a system to serve clients,” Montanaro said.

Services for adults with developmental disabilities are all funded by Medicaid, Montanaro said, and the future costs can be projected fairly accurately by looking at the state’s costs for the past three years.

Montanaro contends that the social support services funded by Medicaid through the Division of Disabilities probably avoid medical costs in the long run. The social supports, like job coaching and other services, “allow them to live their best life, doing meaningful work and having a meaningful personal life,” Montanaro said. People who are more active and engaged in their communities are not as sick, using fewer medical services, Montanaro said.

“That is why I am arguing to change the structure,” she said, She envisioned a separate unit run by a commissioner of developmental disabilities – someone like Charles Moseley, a developmental disability career professional who formerly served as commissioner in Vermont.

Moseley is now the federal court monitor for compliance with the 2014 consent decree which requires Rhode Island to transform its segregated system into an integrated one over a 10-year period in accordance with the 1999 Olmstead decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. That decision clarified the integration mandate of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Together, Rhode Island’s developmental disabilities commissioner and the state Medicaid administrator “should have a sight line over the whole experience,” so they are able to see how day supports affects utilization of medical services, Montanaro said.

“It’s pretty easy to look at caseload and utilization and set your budget,” she said. This exercise should be carried out as part of the state’s twice yearly caseload estimating conference, she said. Prior to Governor Raimondo, every administration has set an arbitrary budget target that did not reflective of projected costs, and BHDDH has responded by either lowering rates paid to private providers or running a deficit without worrying about the consequences, Montanaro said.

There’s an assumption in state government that the Division of Developmental Disabilities can lower costs by better managing the utilization of services, she said, but that’s not true.

 “The population is “fairly static,” and the needs of clients are stable, she said. Individuals who meet certain criteria are entitled by law to residential services and employment and other social supports.

The only way to reduce costs is to cut reimbursement rates to providers, which has been done in the past, she said. 

Montanaro said it appears that prior to her arrival, BHDDH may have created bureaucratic delays to save money by delaying the adjudication of appeals.

“We tried to terminate unfair practices,” she said. “We have a responsibility to plan for the service to clients.” In nearly 18 months at BHDDH, Montanaro said, her team “removed those operational barriers that we found in place here."

"Were they in place deliberately, or were they here because the department was wildly inefficient, with eligibility delays and claims lagging as a result? I won’t speculate on that,” she said.

The amount of time and effort necessary to bring about change in the state bureaucracy leads to “a lot of crisis management,” Montanaro said. “It’s designed to protect institutions from constant, fast change that could come with changes in administration every four to eight years,” she said.

In addition to having a realistic budget, Montanaro said the ideal developmental disability agency would be staffed by experts needed to move reforms forward.

As it is, she said, “the Division of Disabilities has lacked critical leaders in critical roles for all the years far back that I can see.”

For about 16 months, Charles Williams, the outgoing director of developmental disabilities, has split his time between that job and running RICLAS. His professional expertise is in mental health services rather than developmental disabilities, Montanaro said.

As a result of the consent decree - and Montanaro's efforts - BHDDH now has a chief transformation officer, Andrew McQuaide, and has just hired Tracey Cunningham of the James L. Maher Center in Newport as an Employment Specialist.

Funding has been authorized for a quality improvement officer to focus on programmatic improvements for BHDDH staff and private service providers. In addition, a high-level chief operations officer will be hired to round out the leadership team.

As for her own future, Montanaro, 58, said she will take the summer off to recharge. She plans to visit her son and daughter-in-law in France, where the couple are expecting their first child.

 

DD Budget Plan Scales Back Shared Living Expansion in Rhode Island

Hearing Highlights Two Systems of Care

By Gina Macris

Rhode Island’s developmental disabilities agency has sharply scaled back plans to move residents of group homes to less-expensive shared living arrangements, a strategy to free state money for measures required in a 2014 consent decree to remedy violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act. 

That information emerged at a RI House Finance subcommittee hearing Tuesday, April 12 on the budget of the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH).

 The hearing by the Human Services subcommittee lasted more than three hours, covering public comments on behavioral healthcare, mental health, and state hospitals as well as developmental disabilities. Even at that length, some who came to testify did not have a chance to speak before the schedule was overtaken by another budget hearing that started late in the afternoon. 

As a consequence, legislators did not hear about the 2014 consent decree under review in U.S. District Court. JudgeJohn J. McConnell, Jr. said on April 8 that he will hold the General Assembly responsible, if necessary, for funding  reforms to integrate persons with disabilities in their communities as required by the ADA.  

The hearing did draw comments highlighting differences between Rhode Island’s two systems of care for people with developmental disabilities: Care provided through private agencies and care provided through state-run group homes. 

Representatives of private agencies that would provide most of the services required by the consent decree pressed for a provision in Governor Gina Raimondo’s budget plan that would providea wage increase of 45 cents an hour for workers who are so underpaid they must hold down two or three jobs to survive. 

Union representatives for employees at state-run group homes, on the other hand, said that the plan to shift residents of group homes into shared living arrangements to provide more funding for the private agencies would come at the expense of their union jobs. 

Shared Living Target Number Cut

In February, when Raimondo submitted a combined budget proposal for the remainder of the current fiscal year and the next one, ending June 30, 2017, she proposed transferring a total of 500 people, about 38 percent of all group home residents, into shared living. 

On Tuesday, when a member of the House fiscal staff presented the BHDDH budget, the target number of 500 had been rolled back to 300 for the same 15-month period.

The original number had been widely described as very aggressive, especially in light of the fact that shared living is a mutual decision between the developmentally disabled individual and the private family that takes time to evolve, according to experts. 

In the month of March, 10 people with disabilities moved from group homes to shared living, bringing the total number of individuals living in private homes to 288 statewide, according to Linda M. Haley, a member of the House fiscal staff. 

BHDDH has budgeted a proposed 46 percent cut, or $15.5 million, to a system of 27 state-run group homes, with the current budget of about $33.2 million reduced to about $17.8 million in the next fiscal year, beginning July 1. 

The group home population at the state-run homes, currently 180, would be cut in half, with 90 remaining at the end of the next fiscal year, according to budget detail presented by Haley of the fiscal staff. 

Her presentation projected a total of $13 million in savings from group home residents in both the public and private system moving to shared living arrangements in the next fiscal year. 

Rep. Eileen Naughton, D-Warwick, chair of the human services subcommittee, asked the mother of a man with autism living in a group home what she thought of shared living. 

“I’m not a fan of it for my son,” said Robin Archambault. Besides autism, her son, Ryan, has a developmental disability and has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she said. 

Tory Flis, the manager of the home where Ryan Archambault lives, said “shared living is a wonderful level of support for some people, but it won’t work for everyone. “It has viability, but what is really needed is more person-centered services.” 

Personal choice through an individualized plan of support is at the heart of the consent decree, which derives its authority from the 1999 Olmstead decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court affirmed the right of individuals with disabilities to live, work, and play in the least restrictive environment that is appropriate. 

Crisis in Staffing Direct Services

The direct support staff at the private agencies who would carry out the requirements of the consent decree are paid an average of about $11.55 an hour, according to the state’s figures.  

Tom Kane, a spokesman for 23 private agencies providing most of the direct care in Rhode Island, told the legislators that employees now average $10.77 an hour.  At those wages, the workers must hold down two and three jobs to make ends meet, according to Kane, group home manager Flis, and others in the field. 

Archambault, the mother of the man with autism, said the high turnover “saddens me.” The workers “are getting burned out” and leaving, she said. “As a parent, this scares me.” 

Kane, who is executive director of Access Point RI, said a living wage for a parent with one child at home is nearly $22 an hour. Among the developmental disability agencies, 48 percent of employees qualify for public assistance, and there’s a 33 percent turnover rate, he said. With each replacement, agencies put in about $5,000 in training, he said. 

Kane said the state reimbursement rate is so low that the private agencies operate at a loss of $5,700 a year for each person on the payroll because the state does not cover the full amount of employer-related taxes and benefits. 

Governor Raimondo’s proposed 45- cent hourly wage increase for direct service staff is “very generous,” Kane said, “I still believe it is insufficient.” With the raise, agencies would still operate at a loss for each person they employ, although it would be reduced to about $4,500 a year, he said. 

“In Rhode Island, like the rest of the country, there is a real crisis” in providing direct service for people with developmental disabilities, he said. 

“As was stated earlier,” Kane said, “you can go to a fast food restaurant and make more money. Why would you not want to do that?” 

“We are basically flat-funded where we were in 2006,” Kane said. 

“We have had positive work experiences with this administration,” he said, referring to BHDDH director Maria Montanaro and her deputies. 

“We ask that you support the Governor’s budget” and add “any other money you can find” to alleviate the crisis in the developmental disability service system, Kane said.                                                                           

State Employees Fear for Their Jobs

Jim Cenerini, legislative affairs coordinator for Rhode Island Council 94 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, spoke for nearly 300 state employees  who staff the state-run group homes.  

He said the proposed cut of nearly 50 percent of the state group home budget has created a great deal of unease among workers fearful they may lose their jobs. “I’m not sure how this is happening without closure of a group home or layoffs,” he said. 

“We support the private providers, but this looks like it would destroy our capacity to provide care,” Cenerini said. 

He said higher costs in the state-run homes reflect the needs of patients who are generally older and tend to be more medically compromised than in the private system, but costs also reflect “former Ladd employees who have strong union representation.” 

He said BHDDH has not explained to the union how the proposed budget cut would play out. 

In response to a reporter’s question shortly after Raimondo announced her budget proposal, BHDDH officials said that RICLAS employees displaced by group home residents moving to shared living would be able to transfer to vacant jobs. 

Cenerini said BHDDH wanted to move all residents of state-run facilities into the private system last year, but the union negotiated two cost-cutting agreements instead. The state never acted fully on those agreements, he said. 

“We are willing to make efficiencies, but we have to have an honest partner,” he said.