When you hear your neighbors howling in recognition of healthcare workers, who comes to mind?
For most, I’m guessing it’s doctors and nurses. But are you also thinking about the front-line workers providing daily supports to people with disabilities?
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and the agencies and workers who support them have been far-reaching. From difficulty in accessing protective equipment and service and agency closures, to the heroic work of Direct Support Professionals who continue to serve people at great risk to themselves and their families, every aspect of support has been affected.
Colorado has been a national leader in its response for the IDD community. Our Department of Health Care Policy and Financing immediately sought federal approval to provide supports remotely, authorized retainer payments for services that couldn’t be delivered safely, and provided rate increases for services experiencing significantly increased workload. The Department of Public Health and Environment made sure that providers could access state supplies of protective equipment, and both departments have communicated regularly about the vast array of new policies and guidance.
Gov. Polis included disability providers as critical businesses so that daily supports could continue during the stay-at-home order and made sure that hospital crisis plans don’t discriminate against people with disabilities. This effective mobilization of state government has resulted in thousands of workers keeping their jobs and continuity of support for people with IDD. We at Mosaic always appreciate the strong partnership with the State of Colorado to help the people we support live meaningful lives.
Colorado’s decades-long leadership in moving people with IDD out of large, congregate residential facilities in favor of smaller, individualized homes has also helped to ensure people’s safety. The pandemic provides yet another reason for why this trend should continue and expand nationwide.
Other states have not fared so well. Across the nation, many agencies are closing services, furloughing and laying off employees, or shuttering their doors altogether. Because disability providers rely almost entirely on government funding, they are disproportionately impacted when they can’t deliver services and often lack reserve funding to stay afloat beyond a few weeks. In many states, the service networks that support people with IDD are crumbling.
As we prepare for major state budget cuts, disability providers are keenly aware that our budgetary woes are likely to outlast the state of emergency. Even in Colorado, there are still holes to be filled, as agencies offer enhanced pay to our direct support professionals, cover unanticipated overtime, and float services for which retainer payments aren’t available. If we have to face significant reimbursement cuts in the coming years, continuing to provide supports will become difficult.
That’s why federal funding targeted to disability providers is urgently needed to ensure we can continue to be here for the people who rely on us for their daily needs. We applaud Gov. Jared Polis, Sen. Cory Gardner, and Sen. Michael Bennet for co-authoring a letter to Senate leadership advocating for more funding for community service providers.
We hope that our senators will help hold Health and Human Services accountable for dispensing emergency dollars directly to Medicaid providers, and replenish funding for this purpose in the fourth COVID-19 package.
We also hope that HHS and the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services will recognize the need for prolonged flexibilities to allow states to gradually adapt to the “new normal” in service delivery.
As we come to understand our new reality, state and federal policymakers should look to Colorado as an example of how to work with stakeholders to meet the needs of people with IDD.
And tonight, I hope you’ll join me in howling the recognition of all the seen and unseen front-line workers supporting people with disabilities and those they support. In times of emergency, it is up to all of us to make sure that people with disabilities continue to be supported.
Cheryl Wicks is the Executive Director of Mosaic in Colorado Springs, and the President of Alliance, the statewide, non-profit association of Colorado’s intellectual and developmental disability service providers.