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RI worker shortage a ‘full-blown crisis,’ say providers of social services

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When Tina Spears’ son had a traumatic brain injury as a young child, he was sent to the newborn intensive care unit for a month.

After he was released, doctors told Spears he needed the Early Intervention Program, a government-funded program administered through nongovernmental providers that offers a slate of physical, occupational and speech therapies to infants and toddlers with developmental delays.

The intervention is critical to early childhood development, Spears said, suggesting it could be the difference between a child speaking and not speaking when they grow up.

Today, five of the nine Early Intervention providers scattered across state have stopped accepting referrals from pediatricians, hospitals and emergency rooms. Meanwhile, roughly 75 new infants and toddlers per week are seeking Early Intervention, effectively creating a waiting list of hundreds.

Advocates say the backlog is a symptom of the “full-blown crisis” that’s rocking the state’s health and human services provider network.

“We’ve been in a crisis state since the pandemic,” said Spears, who now serves as executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island. “But even before the pandemic the system was struggling to maintain financial viability.”

On Thursday, a group of 70 organizations penned a letter to Gov. Dan McKee and the General Assembly, calling on lawmakers to hold a special legislative session and allocate upward of $100 million from the state’s $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding and other areas to support the state’s health and human services network.

“Without immediate action, the safety net we provide to so many vulnerable youth could collapse,” Rhode Island Coalition for Children and Families executive director Tanja Kubas-Meyer said in a statement. “We must stabilize our network of community-based agencies and the critical support they provide to so many Rhode Island children, youth, and families.”

Legislative leaders so far have not said publicly whether they plan to return for a special fall session, and spokespersons for House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

On the surface, the provider network is facing issues that look similar to other industries: a workforce crisis. Nonprofits providing government-funded services are struggling to both hire new employees and maintain existing ones, and the group said it’s “crippling the health and human service delivery system.”

As a result, there’s a shortchanging of various programs, such as Early Intervention, the state’s child welfare program and support for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, according to the group. And the long-term effects could be devastating, they argue.

“The instability of the community-based health and human service system impacts Rhode Island children, individuals with disabilities and behavioral health conditions, and elders who rely upon this workforce and the viability of the organizations that employ these workers,” the group wrote in the letter.

McKee spokesperson Lexi Kriss said the governor and his team “absolutely understand the there are workforce challenges affecting our health and human service providers, and recognize the need for federal funding to ensure access to services for Rhode Islanders.”

“Children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and people with behavioral health challenges rely on a dedicated workforce to provide the services they need,” Kriss said. “Rhode Island needs to invest some available federal funds to support these workers and the people they serve. The governor and his administration will be connecting with stakeholders and our partners in the legislature to discuss this issue further.”

The provider network’s funding issues are anything but new. Rhode Island has not updated its reimbursement rates for many organizations providing government-funded programs in years. As a result, employee wages have remained low, even as the cost of living has increased, Spears said.

“They’re getting paid poverty wages,” she added, pointing to the $15.75 per hour made by people who work with adults with intellectual disabilities.

“Dunkin’ Donuts pays more than that right now,” Spears said.

To address the issue, the group is calling on the legislature to allocate $100 million in ARPA funds and other funding to increase wages at community-based health and human service providers. The money would also go toward covering additional costs associated with operating during the pandemic and to “initiate a robust workforce development strategy,” according to the letter.

The group is also seeking lawmakers to consider using funds from its $51 million budget surplus, along with its $115 million to $150 million in Home and Community Based Service Enhanced FMAP funding.

The group criticized the state for being the only one in New England that has “failed to release any American Rescue Plan Act funding,” saying it should be disbursed now because waiting until the normal legislative session begins in January will be detrimental to the industry.

“We simply cannot wait to respond to the current crisis until January, particularly at a time when there is funding available today,” Spears said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is an investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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