RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-A number of Virginians with disabilities are waiting a decade or more to access essential services due to a lack of funding.
The General Assembly is expected to increase investments in Developmental Disability (DD) Waivers but advocates say existing proposals neglect key priorities.
The negotiations come as Virginia remains under federal scrutiny for a settlement reached in 2012. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) found the state was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) for failing to meet the need for services as the commonwealth moves away from institutional care.
Tonya Milling, the executive director of the Arc of Virginia, said neither budget proposal brings the state closer to meaningful compliance.
“Both of the budget reports that were passed miss the mark for moving Virginia closer to building a viable community-based system of support,” Milling said.
Angela West, 37, was able to get her own apartment with daily supervision and specialized equipment after getting a DD Waiver for cerebral palsy.
“These services are critical,” West said. “I never thought I would be able to live here so it felt great.”
West had to wait 12 years for the DD Waiver that opened the door for a more independent life.
Frederique Vincent’s 27-year-old daughter Camille, who has autism and down syndrome, was on the waitlist for 18 years before a slot became available. For her, it meant greater access to group homes, coaching, day support programs and employment services.
“You feel that you have won the lottery and you cry because it is an immense relief,” Vincent said. “I was going to lose my job and lose my house because I had an adult child that was no longer in the school system and her day support closed.”
Lisa Smith said the problem is a “pathway to poverty” for many families. She said caring for her 21-year-old daughter Haley, who suffers from daily seizures, is a full-time job. Smith said she cannot return to work without a DD Waiver to hire a skilled nurse who can administer medication in emergencies.
“I’ve lost 15 years of employment and I will never gain that back,” Smith said. “Someone has to be a voice for the voiceless and put the politics aside. There are hurting families and it is not just mine.”
Smith’s daughter is one of 14,260 individuals currently on the waiting list and one of 3,704 considered a top priority based on the urgency of need, according to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS).
A breakdown from The Commonwealth Institute shows, as introduced by Governor Ralph Northam, the two-year budget would fund an additional 1,200 waiver slots in fiscal years 2023 and 2024. The budget crafted by House Republicans maintains that but the plan led by Senate Democrats cuts it down to an additional 600 waiver slots in fiscal year 2024.
All three plans increase reimbursement rates for certain waiver services.
“Even if they had the slots they couldn’t get the services because providers cannot hire staff,” said Keri Ayres, the owner of Moms In Motion, which coordinates disability services.
Ayres said they’re struggling with high turnover due to poor pay. She said current reimbursement rates don’t attract people with the professional and educational experience needed.
“They’re going to Wawa. They’re going to Walmart,” Ayres said. “I need help providing a livable wage to them.”
Senator George Barker (D-Fairfax) said he is optimistic that the budget plan will have a meaningful impact but the backlog wont be resolved overnight. He said the Senate’s approach provides less funding for additional slots because they’re focusing on increasing reimbursement rates first.
“We will then follow through and add additional slots to it,” Barker said. “This actually will benefit everyone in the long run.”
Barker said the budget increases rates for the most commonly used services under the DD Waiver but he acknowledged that lawmakers will have to revisit others down the road.
“Some of the rates that are being increased are being increased by more than 50 percent because they were so inadequate that it is basically impossible for the providers to come even close to covering their costs,” Barker said.
As the House and Senate work towards a compromise, Ayres said all services under DD Waivers need a provider rate increase to at least match reimbursement at Virginia’s institutions.
“I’m here to ask the General Assembly to put their money where their mouth is and to put the support where they say their values are,” Ayres said.