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By Gina Macris
Rhode Island would add an estimated $2.53 an hour to entry-level pay for caregivers of adults with developmental disabilities in the proposed state budget that it is headed for a vote in the House Thursday, June 24. But it’s not clear if the wage hike will be enough to attract needed workers.
The proposed wage increase, from an estimated $13.18 to $15.75 an hour, resulted from months-long, court-ordered negotiations intended to develop a three-year plan to strengthen Rhode Island’s private developmental disability system so it will enable the state to comply with a 2014 civil rights consent decree.
The proposed wage package also includes a $3.58 hourly increase for supervisory personnel, from $18.41 to an estimated $21.99 an hour.
The House Finance Committee accepted the negotiated rates during a June 17 vote on the overall budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. But it rejected Governor Dan McKee’s plan to privatize the state’s own parallel group home system, saying 50 state jobs that would have been eliminated should be restored to the state payroll.
In all, the state and privately-run developmental disabilities systems would get nearly $336.7 million in the fiscal year beginning July 1, an increase of roughly $32.7 million over the current budget of $304 million.
The privately-run system would get a total of $297.6 million, or about $37.2 million more than the current allocation of $260.4 million, according to figures from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH).
The higher total reflects the cost of the pay hikes, $39.7 million in federal-state Medicaid funding, including the redirection of $13 million of a $15 million “transition and transformation fund” the McKee had administration originally had proposed for court-ordered system reforms to comply with the consent decree.
Chief Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. of the U.S. District Court had ordered the state to come up with a three-year plan by June 30 that would spell out what it intends to do to comply with the consent decree by the end of the decade-long implementation period June 30, 2024.
In a recent report, an independent court monitor told the judge that the second and third years of the plan were not discussed during the recent negotiations, and he recommended that the state continue to meet with private service providers and others on a weekly basis to discuss unresolved issues.
In a recent hearing before the House Finance Committee’s Subcommittee on Human Services, the director of the Division of Developmental Disabilities, Kevin Savage, said the state has a “difficult” relationship with the federal court.
While providers have called the raises a significant step, they say they do not believe that the new rate of $15.75 will affect their worker shortage when Massachusetts and Connecticut are paying more.
On July 1, minimum wages in Connecticut will increase to $16.50 an hour for private-sector direct care workers in the first year of a two-year contract between that state and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The rate will jump to $17.25 on July 1, 2022.
Massachusetts will pay direct care workers at privately-run agencies a minimum of $16.10 an hour beginning July 1, the final year of a three-year contract with another branch of the SEIU, according to a salary schedule on a Massachusetts state website related to “personal care attendants.”
Tina Spears, executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, has said in recent weeks that she has recommended data be collected on hiring and retention to enable the court to gauge whether the wage hikes help providers expand their workforce.
As it now stands, the private system lacks about 37 percent of the workforce it needs to support individuals in jobs and non-work activities in the community as required by the consent decree and the Integration Mandate of the Americans With Disabilities Act, according to a recent report made to the court.
In other changes, the House Finance Committee moved up by one year the date for including the developmental disabilities caseload in an important budget-planning exercise, the Caseload Estimating Conference. That means the change would take effect in 2021, instead of 2022.
Judge McConnell has ordered that the developmental disabilities caseload be part of the discussion at the Caseload Estimating Conference beginning November of this year to bring transparency and consistency to budgeting for these services.
House Finance recommended the Executive Office of Health and Human Services give assistance to the BHDDH to prepare the caseload data for presentation at the November conference.
The McKee administration never explained why it originally proposed that the change be made in 2022.
In another court-ordered reform, an OMB spokesman confirmed that the allocation for the privately-run system of services contains $6.8 million to fully fund annual authorizations that set an individual spending limit for each person receiving developmental disability services.
For the last decade, the authorizations have been available on a quarterly basis. Any amount not utilized within a particular three-month period cannot be carried over to the next quarter. And the fee-for-service reimbursement system now in place means that providers cannot bill for those who do not participate on a particular day, for whatever reason, even though the agencies may incur the same costs for staffing.
Providers and service recipients and their families alike say that annual funding will allow them greater flexibility in planning their programs.
Gina Macris is a career journalist with 43 years’ experience as a reporter for the Providence Journal in Providence, RI. She retired in 2012. During her time at the newspaper, she wrote two series about her first-born son, Michael M. Smith. Both series won prizes from the New England Associated Press News Executives Association. Michael is now in his 30s.