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How Shapiro's plan would boost intellectual disability/autism care and worker pay in Pennsylvania

From left: Christy Wechtenhiser, Erin Grimes, Sierra Wechtenhiser and Gov. Josh Shapiro at Thursday afternoon's event at Achieva on the South Side of Pittsburgh.
By Paul J. Gough – Reporter, Pittsburgh Business Times

For sisters Sierra and Christy Wechtenhiser, Erin Grimes isn't just a direct support professional and family advocate for Pittsburgh-based nonpropfit Achieva. Grimes is a friend and a member of their critical support systems.

That was the case for Christy Wechtenhiser, who had for years been unable to get help from a direct support professional until arriving at Achieva and, eventually starting to work with Grimes.

"(Before) I couldn't get the supports I needed," she said. "Today, I have a job coach and case workers who are able to give me (the support) ... as an individual with special needs so I can grow into the adult I need to be."

Added Sierra Wechtenhiser: "Erin means a lot to me. DSP's are supportive, respectful, good listeners, kind and very understanding."

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and his administration wants to see a lot more Sierras and Christys getting the support they need as adults with special needs, and supporting and retaining direct support professionals like Grimes. That's why he unveiled in his proposed 2024-25 budget increased funding — almost $500 million — for people with intellectual disabilities and autism, and to hire and retain direct service professionals.

The needs are great, Shapiro said: A waiting list with thousands of people waiting for intellectual disabilities/autism services and an 18% vacancy rate among the direct support workers Achieva and others depend on to provide the services. It follows funding from last year's budget that brought $17.49 million to further whittle down the waitlist.

The funding will "ensure that a continuum of care and education and opportunity is available for the ID/A community across Pennsylvania," Shapiro said. He said for far too long, the needs of the community had been heard but other priorities passed them in the budget. Shapiro said he met last fall with Matthew Jennings, who needs around-the-clock support, and his mother, Cindy, who has had her own health challenges but has faced all odds to continue to care for Matthew, along with his grandmother, Judy. That's all because of a shortage of direct service professionals in the Lancaster region where they live. He acknowledged tears.

"Tears because someone as wonderful as Matt wasn't able to live his fullest life, and somebody as wonderful of Cindy was being pulled in a million different directions, not able to live her life maybe the way that she had imagined it, dealing with her own health issues and dealing with so many challenges within her family," Shapiro said. "I summoned my team together and we said that was going to be the moment where we stopped just listening and started acting."

The proposal includes investing $217 million in state money to leverage $266 million in federal funding to invest into intellectual disabilities/autism programs and employees, as well as investing $78 million in state and federal funds to eliminate the emergency waiting list for services.

"Our budget proposes to make sure we pay our DSPs, direct support professionals, like Erin and so many others across Pennsylvania who do this work with a beautiful heart and beautiful mind and capable hands, proposes to both pay them more and make sure we bring more DSPs into service," Shapiro said.

That's critically important to the work of Achieva, which serves the Pittsburgh region and nearby counties with about 600 employees serving thousands of people with disabilities.

"Our vision is to assist people with disabilities to lead lives of personal significance," said Stephen Suroviec, president and CEO of Achieva. "Not what's significant to others, but what's significant to them."

Suroviec said the funding, if approved by the General Assembly, will help Achieva retain direct support professionals by raising pay. He estimated about a third of the new direct support professionals don't stay with Achieva more than a year, drawn away by higher wages elsewhere.

State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny County, said Shapiro's proposal was critically important given workforce shortages.

"If we don't have competent, professional, qualified professionals to provide those services, it's not going to be benefiting the people who we want to serve, who have the right to be able to life with great dignity," Costa said.

State Rep. Aerion Abney, D-Pittsburgh, said the funding will help retain workers.

"They should not have to choose between working in such a critical helping profession or being financially stable," Abney said.

"Care work is valuable work and those who rely on the care of others know this better than anyone," said state Rep. Jessica Benham. "That's why it's so important that Gov. Shapiro has listened to our community and has heard our needs."

Shapiro said: "I've put forth a budget proposal. It reflects our collective values, our shared values."

Grimes, the direct support professional and disability and family advocate, said there aren't enough workers to meet the demand nor are many being paid what they need to live.

"Competitive pay and robust reimbursements for DSP services must be prioritized to attract and retain talent and invest care," Grimes said. "Such an investment is not only about the immediate needs but also about fostering inclusivity, dignity and independence for all members of society."