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July 10, 2017 Other Voices

Short-term cuts to disability services prevent long-term savings

Pamela Fields

Those of us who serve individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities know that our current system of funding these services isn't sustainable. A billion dollars in state and federal funds are allocated to serve about 16,000 individuals with disabilities in Connecticut. The cost per person is way too high, and there is a waiting list for services.

However, this is changing due to a shift in the role that state-funded nonprofits play in the lives of those we serve. Until recently, we operated under a care model of giving what was needed — anything from a place to live and activities to participate in, to assistance going to the bank or getting a haircut. We were coordinating each aspect of their lives on their behalf.

A few years ago, it was mandated by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the primary funder of services for people with disabilities, that agencies like the one I work for shift to a support model. The difference is subtle, but powerful. Our focus is to enable each person we serve to live as independently as possible. Where before we were in front directing, we are behind them now, supporting them as they navigate the world for themselves.

This approach not only allows individuals with disabilities to lead more fulfilling lives, it also saves taxpayers money. Since this shift began in 2014, MidState Arc (formerly Arc of Meriden-Wallingford) has returned more than $400,000 to the state, and the greatest savings are yet to come.

In fact, we are at a crucial moment of transition. We have successfully executed pilot programs, such as using technology to enable people to live in their own apartment and hold a job for the first time. These are people who previously required 24-hour care, and now merely need periodic contact with a staff person. Though there is an up-front cost to transition an individual to independent living, the ongoing cost per person is significantly lower. Until our budget came under fire on the state and federal level, we were on the verge of implementing cost-saving programs like these on a much wider scale.

As a result of cuts ordered by the governor as legislators work to form consensus, we have been thrown into crisis mode, struggling to meet the day-to-day needs of those we serve. This disruption is short-circuiting the progress organizations like ours are making toward long-term savings. If the Affordable Care Act is repealed and Medicaid cut, it will put us even further from a solution that meets the needs of people with disabilities in our society at a reasonable cost.

We find ourselves at the culmination of decades of civil rights progress for people with disabilities. When state-run institutions that kept people with disabilities separate from the public began to close in the 1980s, they moved into better situations: children were absorbed into the school system, and most adults entered group homes owned by nonprofits. Through employment, volunteer and social programs, a greater level of integration for individuals with disabilities into the community was achieved.

While well-intentioned, and by many measures successful, the group home model has been limiting to the potential of some individuals who are capable of living more independently. We are, for the first time, working with individuals to provide the specific support they need to run their own lives.

When implemented at scale, we can achieve results once thought impossible while reducing costs. A future in which people with disabilities have the opportunity to be full members of society is just a few years away and costs far less than our present system.

We must have the foresight to see this transition through. By restoring uninterrupted, full funding of services for people with disabilities, we make a long-term investment in the self-reliance of people who can contribute to our culture and our economy — while permanently easing the burden on the state budget. It is an absolute win-win.

Pamela Fields is CEO of MidState Arc Inc., formerly Arc of Meriden-Wallingford Inc., a nonprofit serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in a 27-town area spanning from Milford to New Britain.

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