Montana continues to rank among the bottom states in the nation in providing services for people with disabilities, according to one new report. The findings were given to lawmakers Monday as they consider a slate of bills aimed at improving the situation.
The problems compounded in recent years. The non-profit businesses that serve people with developmental and intellectual disabilities in the state is still recovering from a deep funding cut. As part of the budget crunch following the 2017 legislative session the state cut payments to providers and companies what work for Medicaid.
“It was a tragedy all around,” says Senator Albert Olszewski, who's carrying several of the bills proposing to stabilize the services. The bills come from a study group of the Children, Families, Health, and Human Services Interim Committee.
The general idea behind all the work is to help people with disabilities stay in their communities to live and work, instead of moving into an institution.
This community based system serves about 2,800 people with disabilities in Montana.
One of the target areas for policy change is to increase wages for direct-care workers. Those are people who work as personal caregivers and help individuals with disabilities stay out of institutions.
“We pay them a very lean rate for their services. And this is seen very clearly in what happened in 2017, where literally the reduction of 3 percent in their provider rates caused services to collapse. It caused industries that provided valuable service to disappear,” Olszewski says.
The non-profits that the state pays via Medicaid say low-wages prevent them from attracting and keeping staff.
Mike Mahoney is the Executive Director of one of those non-profits, called Family Outreach, which operates in Helena, Butte and Bozeman. He spoke in support of Olzewski’s bill, to require lawmakers to consider inflationary wage increases for caregivers.
“We’re asking people to go into people’s homes and work with their children and adults who have developmental delays. And yet people who are working in our fast food industry are compensated at a higher rate than they are. There is something terribly wrong with that,” Mahoney said.
A bill Deer Lodge Democrat Gordon Pierson is carrying would increase caregiver wages by $3 an hour over the next two years.
A similar proposal passed out of the 2017 legislative session, but those raises were put on hold during the state’s budgeting troubles. Now, the state health department says caregiver companies can start billing for the higher wages at the end of this month.
The biparisation interim committee that looked into this last year also recommends establishing a new crisis response system, changing the billing rate structure, and requiring the Health department to streamline how it works with and pays providers of disability services.
Diane Reidelbach is the Executive Director of Job Connection Inc., in Billings, which helps people with disabilities find jobs.
Her testimony supporting the new proposals included the new report outlining how poorly Montana stacks up with the rest of the nation in providing services for people with disabilities.
“Montana was number 19 in 2007, in inclusion of people with disabilities in their communities. We’re now at 48,” Reidelback said.
The American Network of Community Options and Resources published their 2019 report comparing all 50 states and Washington D.C. last week.
Montana’s 48 ranking hasn’t changed since 2016. The report says the state would need to expand existing services by 49 percent in order to match current levels of demand.
According to the Montana state health department, more than 1,900 people are waiting for the state’s waiver program that helps people with a developmental disability, " achieve and maintain a good quality of life."
The Senate Human Services committee Wednesday is expected to take an intal vote on some of the bills updating policy in the state’s disability services.