Advocates for those with disabilities urge Legislature to reverse budget cuts

Oberacker

 

ALBANY — When the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on programs servicing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, providers say, they didn’t get any extra help from the state as they scrambled to protect their workers and New York’s most vulnerable residents.

Instead, they ended up shouldering additional state cuts to funding.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” said Jeff Paterson, chief executive officer of Empower, a nonprofit in Niagara Falls that serves some 400 families with loved ones needing housing and educational assistance. “We’ve worked very hard to keep people safe and healthy. I believe we should be talking about how much more funding we are going to need and not how much we are going to be cut.”

Paterson and other advocates for those serving people with developmental disabilities say the proposed budget issued by Gov. Andrew Cuomo would slice $330 million from the service delivery system at a time when provides are struggling with losses and additional expenses driven by the public health crisis.

Programs providing residential services, meanwhile, are expected to face a reduction of nearly $240 million in May, adding even more stress for the provider organizations.

A major challenge facing the providers involves the high turnover right of workers providing the direct support to residents of homes. Most workers in the field in the upstate region are paid the minimum wage, now $12.50 an hour in the upstate region, or slightly more than that.

A staffing survey completed in 2019 pegged the annual turnover rate of the workforce at 36.2%, and staffing shortages have grown more pronounced since the pandemic hit, said Tom McAlvanah, president of New York Disability Advocates.

“We have not had the investments New York state should have been providing,” McAlvanah said. “This pandemic has certainly brought many of them to the brink.”

With billions of dollars in federal relief about to flow to the state government in Albany as a result of the stimulus package signed by President Joe Biden, the coalition of groups hoping to block the state’s cuts and get new funding for the providers say there is now no excuse for their needs to be excluded from the state budget. The request is for an additional $550 million.

Jennifer O’Sullivan, spokeswoman for the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities, said her agency recognizes that “our direct care workforce is the backbone of a strong service delivery system.”

“We are currently reviewing the provisions in the American Rescue Plan to determine the best use of the one-time funding which is meant to supplement Home and Community Based Services and must be disbursed based on parameters which are being provided by the federal government,” O’Sullivan said in a statement emailed to CNHI.

With a long list of issues still on the table during the budget negotiations, no one is predicting what will be included or left out of the fiscal blueprint when lawmakers complete their wrangling with Cuomo’s representatives.

But a number of legislators on both sides of the political aisle are increasingly vocal in their support for the agencies that serve the population of people with development disabilities.

Sen. Pete Oberacker, R-Otsego County, said he has met with provider groups representing housing support services, independent living service, day programs, employment developers, respite services and others on the issue.

“These programs focus on true human needs,” Oberacker said. “This is about doing the right thing plain and simple. With an infusion of federal dollars coming to New York state we need to make sure our most vulnerable populations are a priority.”

In Niagara Falls, Paterson said he has had discussions with at least 17 lawmakers on the providers’ request for additional state support. Each of those lawmakers indicated they will push to drive more money to programs helping those with developmental disabilities, Paterson said.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.

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