The great news is the House Ways and Means Committee re-inserted protective language last week in the proposed Fiscal Year 2016 state budget that would protect vital sheltered workshops from closure.
Representative Brian Dempsey, chair of the committee, who was instrumental last year in keeping the workshops open, has renewed his commitment to those facilities in this year’s budget go-round with the administration.
The bad news is that the House Ways and Means budget continues to squeeze state-run programs for the developmentally disabled and maintains the administration’s disproportionate increase in proposed funding for the corporate, provider-run group home system. But let’s look at the good news first.
Last spring, after a lobbying campaign by advocates of the workshops, Dempsey placed language in the House Ways and Means version of the current-year budget, stating that DDS “shall not reduce the availability or decrease funding for sheltered workshops serving persons with disabilities who voluntarily seek or wish to retain such employment services.” The protective language survived a House-Senate conference committee in June, largely due to Dempsey’s support.
While that protective language in the budget appeared to offer the workshops an indefinite reprieve, the proposed fiscal 2016 budget submitted by Governor Charlie Baker in March removed the language. As a result, the workshop supporters went to work once again in the past month, calling Dempsey’s office and urging their local legislators to reinstate his language.
Dempsey did reinstate the language; and in a conference call last week concerning the House Ways and Means budget plan, DDS Commissioner Elin Howe indicated that the administration did not intend to file any amendments to remove the language from the budget legislation. It also appears that organizations representing corporate DDS providers, such as the Association of Developmental Disabilities Providers, have not filed amendments to close the workshops.
It is now up to the Senate and specifically to Senator Karen Spilka, the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, to follow Rep. Dempsey’s lead and insert the same protective language in the Senate budget.
The workshops first came under attack from the administration of then Governor Deval Patrick, which targeted them for closure as of this coming June, arguing that they were “segregating” disabled persons from their peers in the mainstream workforce. But families of the workshop participants fought back. They maintain that the facilities are fully integrated into the surrounding communities and provide the participants with meaningful activities and valuable skills.
Sheltered workshops provide developmentally disabled persons with a range of assembly jobs and other types of work, usually for a small wage.
Meanwhile, the bad news we were talking about largely concerns funding for DDS group homes, remaining developmental centers, and service coordinators. The House Ways and Means budget proposal would cut the developmental center line item even deeper than Governor Baker has proposed and would reduce the service coordinator line item below the amount proposed by the governor. It would also fund the state-operated group homes at a level below what DDS considers a “maintenance level.”
While the state has closed three of six existing developmental centers since 2008 and is in the process of closing a fourth, funding appropriated to run the remaining three centers may have dropped too fast to maintain existing services in those facilities. As we recently noted, years of cuts in the developmental-center line item have lately resulted in the closing of several cottages at the Wrentham Developmental Center, requiring residents to be moved from long-time residential locations.
The Wrentham Center has become a major destination for persons transferred from the developmental centers that have been closed in recent years.
While Governor Baker’s fiscal 2016 budget would cut the developmental center line item by about $375,000 from projected spending, the House Ways and Means budget would cut it by $1 million beyond that.
DDS-operated group homes would get the same amount in fiscal 2016 under the House Ways and Means budget as under the governor’s version of the budget, which amounts to a $2 million reduction from what DDS considers a “maintenance budget.”
Also, the House Ways and Means budget would fund the DDS line item that pays service coordinators at a level $538,000 less than what Baker has proposed. In March, DDS Commissioner Howe had said Baker’s budget would fund the service coordinator line item at $1.8 million below what DDS had requested. So the House Ways and Means budget further reduces that proposed funding for the service coordinators next year by more than half a million dollars.
The service coordinators, whom Howe has referred to as “the heart and soul” of DDS, are responsible for ensuring that clients throughout the system are receiving services to which they are entitled. The service coordinators have seen their caseloads rise dramatically in recent years.
In last week’s conference call, Howe noted the shortfalls in funding under the House Ways and Means budget for the developmental centers, DDS-operated group homes, and service coordinators. But in what may be a sign of the priority that this administration places on these services, Howe said the Department did not plan to seek amendments to the House budget to increase that funding.
At the same time, the House Ways and Means budget preserves a major funding increase to the corporate providers in the coming fiscal year. The Ways and Means plan provides for the same $35 million increase from the current year for the DDS corporate residential line item that Baker has proposed. As of July, this line item will have been increased by more than 28 percent since the filing of a lawsuit by the corporate providers in June 2014 against the then Patrick administration.
While we understand that direct-care workers in corporate, provider-operated group homes are woefully underpaid, it’s not clear how much of the additional funding being sent to the providers is, or will be, going to those workers. As we have noted, the hundreds of executives working for those provider agencies in Massachusetts have been making out quite well.
The Baker administration is apparently fine with that state of affairs. Terming the House Ways and Means plan “a very reasonable budget,” Howe pointed out that it would add $17 million to the DDS bottom line compared to the governor’s budget. Under the House Ways and Means budget, the Community Day and Work line item would be almost $10 million higher than what the governor proposed.
The House Ways and Means budget also would provide $12.4 million under a new DDS line item to implement the expansion of DDS eligibility to people with autism, Prader-Willi, and Smith-Magenis Syndrome.
While that expansion of eligibility funding is certainly needed, the Senate has a lot of other work in store for it as well. We hope that in addition to protecting the sheltered workshops, the Senate begins to address the imbalance in the budget between corporate and state-run DDS care.