Sen. Sally Harrell and Sen. John Albers (center) react after their study committee passed recommendations for how to improve access to services for people with disabilities. Harrell, a Democrat, and Albers, a Republican, co-chaired the panel. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder
A bipartisan Senate panel has proposed funding services for an additional 2,400 people with disabilities next year, putting the state on track to eliminate Georgia’s waitlist in three years.
And those state senators are also pushing for a wage increase for the workforce providing direct care for people with disabilities so they can live in their homes and communities.
The Senate study committee has proposed funding the jump in new waiver slots and the wage increase in the new state budget that would take effect next summer. The shortage of direct-support professionals has hamstrung recent efforts to serve more of the 7,000 people waiting for Medicaid services.
Increasing funding to provide services for 2,400 more people would cost about $66 million, according to one estimate. That would be a significant increase, and it would follow a year where lawmakers covered an additional 513 people.
“It’s critically needed,” said D’Arcy Robb, executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities who also served on the study committee.
“As a state, we have under invested in this population for a long time. I think we’ve heard very clearly in the testimonies: people are breaking. And these are Georgians, these are folks with disabilities who can live lives and thrive and contribute. These are families.”
The committee drew a crowd at the series of meetings held across the state this year, with the attendees in Tifton spilling into an overflow room. More than 100 people also submitted written testimony.
In the longer term, the study committee has proposed creating a commission like the one established in 2019 to overhaul the state’s behavioral health system and that was the driving force behind last session’s parity bill.
Sen. Sally Harrell, an Atlanta Democrat who pushed for the examination of the waitlist, and her Republican co-chair Sen. John Albers share the vision of creating a reform-minded commission this coming legislative session that will take a comprehensive look at Georgia’s system for caring for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and identify solutions. The new session starts next month.
“This is the beginning. This is the kickoff of a process of solving these issues, which are deep and complex,” Harrell said.
Kevin Tanner, who started and led the behavioral health reform commission, will become the commissioner of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities this Friday.
‘A crisis in the care economy’
The state agency responsible for Georgia’s safety net system for people with disabilities is in the middle of reviewing the pay of direct-support professionals.
But the lawmakers behind Wednesday’s committee report said they are frustrated by preliminary findings that would justify raising the hourly rate in Georgia to about $15, up from about $10.
“I personally was disappointed in the amount they came up with which was like $15.18 an hour,” Harrell said. “We certainly heard testimony that there were organizations that had done enough fundraising and had gone up to that and it didn’t make a difference.”
The rate study is being conducted at a time of steep inflation, which is compounding a long-standing workforce problem nationally. Even before inflation strained the pocketbooks of direct-support professionals, provider groups in Georgia were warning the workforce shortage had already reached crisis levels.
“I’m disappointed too,” Albers said. “But you know what, there’s too much other good things happening – this is advancing the ball – to walk away disappointed over one out of all the other issues.”
Albers committed to revisiting the wage issue later if inflation does not ease and if the proposed rate increase does not help address the shortage.
The cost to the state to fund what the rate study ultimately recommends was not available Wednesday because the study is still ongoing. The state is seeking public comment on the study’s initial findings through Jan. 13.
Dom Kelly, president and CEO of a new advocacy group called New Disabled South that is focused on a 14-state region, said he had not seen the study’s results but struggled to see how a $15 hourly rate would help grow and preserve this important workforce.
“Overall, $15 an hour is not a livable wage for really anybody, especially today with inflation and even without inflation,” Kelly said Wednesday. “Fifteen dollars an hour is not a livable wage, and especially in a vital role like that where this is actually people’s lives that we’re dealing with.”
Kelly said there is an urgent need to shore up this workforce.
“There is a crisis in the care economy right now, and there aren’t enough people willing to do the work,” he said.
Robb with the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities said her organization’s position is for lawmakers to raise the rate to $15 an hour at a minimum in the near term. It would still be a jump from the current rate, she said.
She said she’s encouraged by talk of forming a commission.
“I think what’s come out is that this problem is deeper and wider than was really realized before,” Robb said. “So, I think the commission is going to be really key going forward to keep these issues in the limelight and address this on an ongoing basis because ‘waivers and wages,’ to my mind, that’s the start.”
Managed care model
The panel also wants to task the new commission, if created this session, with exploring the prospect of delivering services for people with disabilities through managed care, which has prompted concerns.
If deemed a viable option, the panel recommends limiting the approach to a small number of people and only those who are newly enrolled in NOW and COMP waiver services.
Albers said after Wednesday’s meeting that he’s aware of the concerns that moving to the managed care model for these services might diminish the quality of care.
“The reality is we don’t know,” he said. “The fear of the unknown is a healthy fear. But we also should do our homework, we should study it and see if it could work, and if it could, how would we pilot that to make sure.”
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