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By Steve Suroviec, President and CEO
With the recent elections, Pennsylvania will soon experience a new governor, some new state representatives and senators, and likely new control of the state House of Representatives once all 203 state representatives are seated. Are all these changes for the better? Perhaps. Who knows? We’ll have to wait and see. But for now, there’s hope that with new blood, new ideas, and new energy in certain seats in government, solutions will be pursued to address the critical challenges that have faced, and continue to face, Pennsylvanians with disabilities. As they say, hope springs eternal - right?
Until the new folks are sworn in, the situation remains the same. For people with disabilities...
Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) are hard to find and keep, not only because of the tight labor market but because government rates have failed to keep up with the cost of providing disability services – making it difficult for disability-service providers to compete with other segments of the economy going after the same talent. During the past 6 years, the Wolf Administration gave only one rate increase to providers that serve people with intellectual disabilities and autism. For most providers, this has led to staff vacancies and high turnover rates, which can cause burnout for the valiant DSPs who stick with their vocation. Turnover also leads to disruptions in the continuity of care for people who often have very complex medical conditions and depend on DSPs knowing and understanding their very personal support needs. Will the new leadership in Harrisburg finally establish predictable rates that are updated annually and keep up with the inflation in wages, health care benefits, housing and fuel?
Waiting lists for community services exist for 10,000 people with intellectual disabilities statewide – some with “emergency” needs as categorized by the state while others have “critical” needs. Will the new leadership in Harrisburg fund a multi-year plan that finally ends the waiting list for home and community-based services?
Employment continues to elude most people with a disability. Despite a tight labor market, public and private-sector employers continue to ignore the largest untapped labor pool in the economy – qualified workers with disabilities! Labor participation for working-age people with disabilities is half that of those without disabilities (many get frustrated and give up their job search). Of those in the labor market, people with disabilities experience an unemployment rate twice that of those without disabilities. Will the new leadership in Harrisburg make state government a model employer for people with disabilities (including state colleges and universities), increase Supported Employment rates (more than the Wolf Administration’s paltry 0.9% increase), and insist that the taxpayer-funded Community HealthChoices program finally prioritize employment for its 56,000 working-age participants across the state?
Institutions continue to exist in Pennsylvania. No one needs a state institution – they’re outdated, isolating to their residents, and costly to taxpayers. Closures of two of the remaining four were announced three years ago by the Wolf Administration yet the doors of both remain open to this day. Will the new leadership in Harrisburg finally close Polk and White Haven Centers, announce closure plans for the last two centers (Ebensburg and Selinsgrove), and finally become a state that can boast it no longer operates public institutions?
Transportation on an even par with people without disabilities does not exist. Public transportation has come a long way in terms of accessibility, and the Shared Ride Program was a godsend when it began subsidizing rides for people with disabilities over 20 years ago. Yet, it’s nearly 2023 and the general public can order a ride with Uber or Lyft, have it arrive within 10 or 15 minutes, and pay for it on their mobile phone. People with disabilities who rely on Medicaid-funded home and community-based services should be able to do the same with their public dollars. Today, Medicaid will cover the cost of transportation, but it’s usually either group transportation or it’s a ride that has to be ordered a day in advance, can’t go over county lines, and must be used Monday through Friday. This does not promote an “everyday life,” nor does it encourage people with disabilities to get and keep employment. Will the new leadership in Harrisburg give people with disabilities using Medicaid-funding home and community-based services the same experience as everyone else – i.e., the ability to order a ride, have it arrive in 10 to 15 minutes, and have it paid with public funds on their mobile device?
In January, new leadership in Harrisburg will be sworn in. Will it be more of the same, or will effective and innovative public policy solutions be adopted for the serious challenges facing people with disabilities? Time will tell.
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