Thousands with disabilities may feel effects of funding gap

Thousands with disabilities may feel effects of funding gap

By Bill Schackner, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
 ACHIEVA President & CEO, Steve Suroviec, quoted several times in the article.

Some 1,200 Pennsylvanians with disabilities may have to be put on a waiting list every month instead of getting help immediately to hold down a job and live independently. That’s because the state no longer has enough funds to cover all those who are eligible, officials and advocates say. The gap now facing the Pennsylvania Office of Vocational Rehabilitation is tied to reliance on a pool of federal aid left over from other states that in years past helped maintain service levels, but now is drying up.

The resulting shortfall has received little public attention, but among advocates for those with disabilities, it has sparked concern ever since the agency posted a May 4 notice in the Pennsylvania Bulletin. It’s scary to a lot of people,” said Stephen Suroviec, president and CEO of ACHIEVA, an agency that advocates for those with disabilities.

The state is seeking comments on the matter through 5 p.m. June 4 that can be emailed to OVRFeedback@pa.gov or mailed to the agency’s Harrisburg headquarters. Hearings were held Wednesday at OVR district offices statewide including two sessions at 531 Penn Ave. in Pittsburgh. More than 50,000 Pennsylvanians receive an array of OVR help, from physical therapy and wheelchairs to job training and placement advice, delivered both individually and through a network of approved vendors. The goal is helping them “prepare for, obtain or maintain employment,” according OVR’s website.

In Pittsburgh, about 30 people turned out for the first of two hearings Wednesday, some with concerns specific to the waiting list expected to start July 1 and others offering general observations about disability and how OVR could more effectively promote independence. Some communicated using sign language. "We're concerned about the waiting list and the fact that these people will be put in limbo for possibly indefinitely, who knows?" said Regis Charlton, Deputy Director for the Center for Independent Living of Allegheny County at Disability Options Network. In an interview before addressing the room, Mr. Charlton, who has Spina-Bifida, said a delay getting OVR services stands to create despair. "They're already in a not good situation, and to think they can't get work, or help getting work, makes them feel inferior or hopeless," he said.

Christine Hunsinger, second vice president with the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind, urged OVR to keep in mind safety and health among other issues, noting that those trying to adapt need more than a referral list of phone numbers.

Karen Rockey, of Houston, Pa., a nurse for 40 years until she lost her sight 15 years ago, spoke of the change in her life and closed with a sobering reminder: "Never say it will never happen to you, because you don't know." The federal government contributes up to 80 percent of OVR’s budget, with the balance - approximately $49 million - provided by the state. Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed budget for 2019-20 includes just more than $51 million.

The squeeze now facing OVR is due in large part to an expected decline in federal money referred to as “reallocation funds,” said Mr. Suroviec, who was state OVR executive director from 2011 to 2014. These funds, through the U.S. Department of Education, typically were unused by other state OVRs and enabled Pennsylvania for years to augment its available funding, he said.

The decline in their availability prompted a state Board of Vocational Rehabilitation vote to contemplate a temporary waiting list for new customers, according to a statement from OVR this month. Applications to the agency in 2017-18 totaled 21,000. The OVR is funded under the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. Penny Ickes, a spokeswoman for Labor and Industry, said Pennsylvania received $18.9 million, $6.7 million and $15.8 million each of the last three years in federal reallocation money.

Next’s year’s funding, if any, won’t be known until September or October, she added, but “national trends would indicate there will be less than $100 million in the reallocation process for all states to request.” She said on average 1,200 people per month may be put on a temporary waiting list but could not say for how long. Those already being served by OVR through Individual Employment Plans and transition services for students with disabilities would continue getting assistance, the agency said.

Mr. Suroviec said congressional passage about five years ago of an updated version of the federal vocational rehabilitation law put more financial pressure on state OVRs. It required them to serve youths while in high school and devote at least 15 percent of agency allocations to that purpose. It helped that age group, he said, but also meant less was available for adults, and presented Pennsylvania with a choice. “What OVR did - and this is not a criticism -- was instead of sort of finding a way to live within your means for adults, they decided to go after the reallocation money so they could keep everybody whole,” he said. Once the funding began drying up, it left the state “sort of out there on a limb” making a commitment to new people beyond what the funding stream could support, he added. Mr. Suroviec said the situation presents the Wolf administration with difficult choices: institute a waiting list; save money in its existing operations or ask the Legislature to allocate an additional $20 million.  Officials from OVR said seven other states have instituted waiting lists. Pennsylvania OVR’s mandate is to serve people with physical or mental impairments that are a significant barrier to finding work, Mr. Suroviec said. It puts emphasis on those with the most severe disabilities. Mr. Wolf, in an annual report in 2018, lauded the program as helping these residents get access to “real jobs with real pay.”

Pennsylvania OVR is the same entity that concluded it no longer could justify subsidizing Pennsylvanians who represented a third of enrollment in an acclaimed in-house attendant care program for students with severe physical disabilities at Edinboro University. It led to a controversial decision by Edinboro to end the program this month and shift care to off-campus agencies, prompting some undergraduates with severe disabilities to leave campus without plans to return.

Despite deficits facing that campus program, Edinboro and OVR said their decisions were not about money and instead involved increasing availability of off-campus care agencies. Students in the program and their parents say they suspect otherwise.

Pennsylvania’s OVR has 21 district offices staffed with trained professional rehabilitation counselors to serve residents of the state’s 67 counties, according to Labor and Industry. The Hiram G. Andrews Center in Johnstown offers training and comprehensive rehabilitation services and OVR’s Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services provides additional assistance.

Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @Bschackner