PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island babies and toddlers at risk of developmental delays are still being placed on a wait list for services more than two months after the General Assembly approved $5.5 million to address the issue.

At a Senate Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday, officials from Gov. Dan McKee’s administration acknowledged none of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money that lawmakers allocated for the Early Intervention program on Jan. 4 has gone to providers yet.

Rhode Island has nine providers that offer services through Early Intervention, a federal program designed to help children from birth to three years old who have any type of developmental delay.

For months, however, a severe staffing shortage has left the providers unable to accept all children immediately, despite a federal requirement. Advocates have compared the situation to a public school not having enough seats for all children on the first day of classes in September.

McKee first proposed allocating $5.5 million in emergency funding to the Early Intervention providers last October, when he proposed a bill to spend a “down payment” from the state’s $1.13 billion in ARPA federal funds.

The governor reached a deal with legislative leaders in December to move forward with the ARPA bill. In the meantime, he tapped a different pot of federal money — the $1.25 billion that Rhode Island got under the CARES Act in 2020 — to immediately grant the Early Intervention providers $3.6 million to tide them over into the new year. That money was used for purposes such as employee retention bonuses.

Lawmakers approved the ARPA spending bill, including the $5.5 million for Early Intervention, on the first day of the legislative session in January. The money was split between $2.6 million for immediate stabilization funds, and $2.9 million tied to performance metrics.

But in testimony before the committee Tuesday, administration officials said the stabilization funds still haven’t been given out, though they emphasized that they are aiming to distribute the money this week.

State Sen. Lou DiPalma, D-Middletown, expressed frustration at the delay, saying he had heard about the issue from providers.

“It’s going to be two-and-a-half months,” he said, adding, “What are we stabilizing?”

Health and Human Services Secretary Womazetta Jones indicated that the process of distributing the funds had been complicated, and that part of the delay had stemmed from the administration’s effort to find common ground with the nine providers.

“One of the things that we were committed to, and I believe expected to do, and should do, was that we interacted with these particular providers,” she said. “We interacted with them to talk to them about the mechanics and how this process would take place, instead of simply making the decision alone in a room on how these dollars would be allocated and rolled out.”

Jones added, “I’m not stating that it would not have been preferred for it to be sooner than now. However, the process that we engaged in was done so in full respect and partnership with the provider community.”

ARPA funds must also comply with an extensive series of regulations issued by the U.S. Treasury Department, which lay out allowable uses of the money. That document was issued on Jan. 6.

Tina Spears, who represents the Early Intervention providers as executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, said the organizations had “some problems” with how the administration interpreted rules around the money. But Spears said she expected the $2.6 million “will be on its way out the door in the next week or two.”

Still, she said, “It’s taken too long.”

Kristin Sousa, Rhode Island’s interim Medicaid director, told senators that progress had been made on reducing the number of children waiting for Early Intervention services, though she did not have an exact number handy. She said the current wait for the average child was “about a month.”

However, Spears said her understanding is that there are now over 300 children on the waiting list, which she asserted was the highest number yet. She also said a provider had told her Wednesday about a child who was recently referred there after waiting six weeks to begin receiving services.

“We don’t want the system to function like this,” Spears said. “We don’t want a list.”

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ryan Pearson, D-Cumberland, expressed frustration about the slow distribution of the Early Intervention money, saying administration officials had argued time was of the essence as they pressured lawmakers to approve the ARPA “down payment” bill last year.

“The same sense of urgency that we felt in December [when] the governor was putting on a full-court press about how urgent it was for the Assembly to come back — it would be nice for that full-court press to still be there, and to be doing everything we can to get those dollars out faster,” Pearson said.

On Thursday morning, three of McKee’s Democratic primary opponents weighed in to criticize the delay.

Former CVS executive Helena Foulkes accused McKee of “incompetence” and said there was “no excuse” with the state sitting on so much federal money. Former Secretary of State Matt Brown attributed the slowness to “a stunning lack of urgency, incompetence or both” on the administration’s part. And Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea said being put on a wait list had to be “excruciatingly frustrating for parents with babies & toddlers, especially with children who have a developmental delay.”

Ted Nesi ( is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook

Eli Sherman contributed to this report.