The Department of Developmental Services is on the hook to create a national background check program that will cost the Department more than $500,000 in the current fiscal year alone and will involve background checks of tens of thousands of current and prospective staff, according to a document posted on the Department’s website.
Yet DDS has continued to balk at applying for up to $3 million in federal grant funds that could help the Department develop the much delayed program. As a result, it appears DDS will have to continue to take money from departmental accounts that have been repeatedly shortchanged in terms of funding in recent years.
The online document states that DDS will be responsible for national background checks of more than 20,400 current human service corporate provider staff in the state, including some 6,500 staff working directly for the Department itself. The document appears to project that DDS will do national background checks on more than 10,600 new provider staff and 1,300 new DDS staff each year.
The document notes that in the current fiscal year, DDS will need a minimum of $510,000 to hire and train staff to be ready for the January 2016 implementation date for the first phase of the program, which involves undertaking background checks of new staff.
COFAR has been urging DDS for the past two years to apply for the federal grant funding, which has been available to states since 2010 under the Affordable Care Act or ObamaCare. In August 2013, a DDS official replied in an email that the state had not applied for the funding because state legislation authorizing national background checks by DDS was not yet in place. Once such legislation was enacted, the official wrote, “we will pursue the federal dollars.”
Even then, it wasn’t necessary to wait to apply for the funding, under the grant rules; but that long-awaited legislation was, in fact, signed into law by then Governor Patrick last August. Yet, on May 1 of this year, some nine months after the bill was signed, DDS was still considering whether to apply for the grant, according to a letter sent to us by the DDS general counsel. As of May 27, the matter was still under consideration, according to a follow-up letter from a DDS assistant general counsel.
This is a year in which DDS Commissioner Elin Howe has said the Department has had to deal with “huge and difficult (budget) reductions.” It would seem that the Department doesn’t have the luxury to spend months thinking about whether to accept federal assistance in paying for the development of a new, required program.
It’s not even a competitive grant, meaning it appears to be practically guaranteed money. A total of 24 states and Puerto Rico have been awarded close to $57 million in this funding. Thus far, Massachusetts is among 26 states that still haven’t applied for the grants.
The state legislation signed in August authorizes DDS to conduct national criminal background checks of persons hired to work in an unsupervised capacity with individuals with developmental disabilities. The law will ultimately require that both current and prospective caregivers in the DDS system submit their fingerprints to a federal database maintained by the FBI. The law applies to DDS employees, employees of corporate service providers to the department, and caregivers over the age of 15 of persons living at home.
Up to now, persons hired to care for clients in the DDS system have had to submit only to an in-state criminal background or CORI check, which identifies only criminal arrests and convictions in Massachusetts. CORI checks do not identify any convictions a job applicant might have from another state.
The new national background check requirements will not fully take effect until January 2019 for current employees, and until January 2016 for new employees. As we have noted a number of times, neither the Legislature nor the administration of then Governor Deval Patrick appeared to place a priority on getting the new program up and running quickly.
That lack of urgency appears to be further reflected in the continued failure by the Baker administration to apply for the available grant funds for the program. As noted, the program will not be a small undertaking.
In response to an information request we submitted in early March, the DDS general counsel stated in early May that the Department was in the process of “developing, designing, and preparing the various systems” needed to implement the new program. Departmental staff were meeting weekly “to plan for the procurement and design of information systems needed to receive and securely store confidential national background information..”
DDS is also planning to establish a unit within the Department of specialists to review both state and federal information in order to determine, apparently on a case-by-case basis, whether each applicant or existing employee is suitable for employment. DDS is currently drafting regulations to govern these processes.
Thus far, no additional funding has been allocated to DDS to implement the program. The 510,000 needed for the current year in implementation money has to come from somewhere. Why not take help when it’s offered?