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Good intentions are meaningless if the budget shorts disability needs | Opinion

Patriot-News - 1/23/2020

For people with intellectual disabilities and their families, as well as Direct Support Professionals working long shifts in community programs while receiving poverty wages, Wednesday’s debate in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives gave them a brief few moments of optimism about the intentions of our elected leaders.

Though the majority of the disability community disagrees with the decision of the General Assembly to pass SB 906, which would block Gov. Tom Wolf’s plan to close outdated and expensive Polk and White Haven Centers, it was encouraging to hear legislators articulating the needs of people with intellectual disabilities.

For 30 minutes legislators discussed the tough reality and often painful issues facing the disability community including:

13,000 people with intellectual disabilities and autism on a state community waiting list, including 5,000 people in emergency/crisis status.

Low wages, caused by a state rate set by the Department of Human Services/Office of Developmental Programs that causes high turnover, huge vacancy rates and few applicants for a job that will require the worker to have one or two other jobs.

Stingy budgets going back years that have allowed waiting lists to stay in the thousands and rates to stay frozen for years to a decade.

Disability advocates favored closing Polk and White Haven centers, acknowledging that community disability programs provide the exact same services and supports for a fraction of the cost, freed from the expense of paying for college-sized campuses such as the PA’s state institutions. Institutions are no longer the choice of families who see a better future for their loved ones in their own homes or local communities. If SB 906 becomes law, the debate will still rage on for years to come.

However, during the debate there were compassionate comments from legislators decrying the commonwealth’s handling of both the community and system. There was open acknowledgement of historic underfunding, the scandal that is a 13,000 person waiting list, and a state rate system that forces low wages to Direct Support Professionals resulting in high turnover and vacancy rates.

Rep. Tom Murt, R-Montgomery, new chair of the House Human Services Committee, issued a challenge to both the Governor and his colleagues, urging priority consideration for intellectual disability needs in the upcoming FY 20/21 Budget.

Gov. Wolf’s spokesman, J.J. Abbott, made a similar pledge on behalf of the governor stating: ”Further investment and transition to community-based care should be the priority for [the] state government.”

In the next two weeks, Gov. Wolf will have the chance to prove the strength of his commitment to people with intellectual disabilities, their families and the dedicated Direct Support Professional workforce.

Three years ago, his administration promised a three-year rate refresh, due in the FY 20/21 budget to address low rates/poverty wages for Direct Support Professionals, and his administration has recommended closing obsolete programs, such as White Haven and Polk, as a tool to address the 13,000 person waiting list. His upcoming budget will give the disability community details of how that promise will be kept.

The General Assembly will have until July to address these needs as well. Proponents of keeping Polk and White Haven centers open permanently will have the chance to demonstrate if they have the compassion for the thousands of others without service or a community system starved for funds.

Unless these issues are strongly addressed in the governor’s FY 20/21 budget, due to be released in two weeks, and the General Assembly’s response, the good intentions of our leaders will have diminished meaning.

Gary Blumenthal is Vice President of InVision Human Services, in Wexford and Reading, PA.

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