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The Battle for Disability Staffing Funds

By Howard Kuritzky

As a parent of an adult child with an Intellectual Disability, life has been a series of battles to obtain support under the Pennsylvania system of Waivers. These Waivers provide for funding to help individuals with intellectual disabilities to achieve goals supportive of adequate care and sustenance throughout their lives.  In some cases, they are able to be independent and productive, and in others, they must receive more intensive services.  I have been attending yearly reviews of the service levels and I have cooperated with the providers to make changes and obtain staffing hours to meet the targets of my child’s IEPs/programs.  The Waiver details for individuals differ, however, the Direct Service Staff are the key people who deliver the services and provide feedback on progress and needs.  Over the years, the reimbursement from the State to our providers has been fixed (single payer), and as a result of inflation and competitive wages elsewhere in the economy, the staffing has been a revolving door.

A few years ago, the organizations that administer the Waiver programs started to discuss and emphasize the utilization of hours that were covered in the IEP objectives.  Most years, the utilization was below target due to staff turnover, vacations, and other normal life factors.  Modifications were made to improve the results.  When COVID hit, the utilization plummeted as both staff and clients stayed home.  Now that the COVID issues are fading, the hiring and retention problems related to the DSPs have been amplified.  There are not enough professionals to service the needs of these Waiver adults as State allowances for wages have become less and less competitive with even the most menial jobs that DSPs could pursue.  That brings us to the next part of the story.Harrisburg 1

When Governor Shapiro was elected, a group called The Alliance of Community Service Providers, representing the organizations that hire and assign DSPs to their clients with intellectual and other disabilities, met with representatives of the Governor to address the funding issues that were undercutting the acquisition of talent needed by this large group of individuals.  The request was to increase funding by $450 Million to bring pay scales for DSPs onto a more competitive level.  This request was met with assurances that this population was high on the Governor’s list of priorities and that efforts would be made in that regard.

As the budget process moved forward, the Legislature introduced HB 611, which proposed to reduce the funding of the Community Waiver budget line by $170 Million.  The reason and logic used were related to the utilization of hours by DSPs. Since utilization has been low, the assumption made was that the need for the hours was not there.  Instead of taking heed of the well-communicated problem of noncompetitive wages leaving many individuals without the availability of hours, they assumed the opposite.  There are thousands of individuals in PA receiving these services and many thousands more waiting to be admitted to the programs.  There are also many who are granted Waivers but cannot get services for months or years.  This budget cut would place many organizations providing services in a position that freezes all intakes and reduces staffing on existing clients, as DSPs leave and cannot be replaced.

Harrisburg 2With all this in mind, I went to Harrisburg on Wednesday, June 30 to attend a rally and a Press Conference addressing the budget losses related to these programs.  There were at least 100 representatives of providers, parents, and adults with disabilities who came to the Capital in the morning and went office by office to the Senators and House members and their Leadership to discuss the impact of these funding cups.  Unfortunately, the Senate was in session and we were left with a harried group of Aides to hear our pleas.  They were sympathetic and promised to discuss the information we provided.  Some were familiar with the problem and pledged to help as the budget process proceeds.  As an aside, the Senate was considering rules to govern recycled materials used in stuffed animals.  I did not make that up.  I along with another of the group did meet Senator Lisa Boscola in a hallway and were able to have a short but effective conversation on our objectives and the impediments created by the current proposed budget cuts.

At 1 PM, the Alliance held a press conference in the Capital Rotunda. It was attended by several hundred people representing Providers, Parents, and Waiver recipients, along with the Press and a few of the Legislators who were sponsoring funding improvements.

As this is being written, the State Budget process is not progressing for various reasons, not directly related to the funding issues that brought us to Harrisburg last week.  The issues being debated are not encouraging appropriate funding in the current budget.

Howard Kuritzky