Mills directs $11 million to services for adults with intellectual disabilities

·4 min read

Sep. 22—The Mills administration is directing nearly $11 million in federal funds to boost long-struggling services for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The American Rescue Plan aid comes on the heels of recent group home closures and cuts to in-home services, caused by low reimbursement rates combined with a workforce shortage.

"My administration is committed to supporting the independence of Maine people living with disabilities, and this additional round of funding will help to ensure they can continue to live in the homes and communities they love," Gov. Janet Mills said in a statement Thursday. "This funding will also support the direct care workers who dedicate themselves to providing around the clock, high quality care to people across the state."

But Laura Cordes, executive director of the Maine Association for Community Service Providers, which lobbies on behalf of the nonprofit agencies that provide the services, described the funding as a short-term fix.

"The funding is much needed and appreciated, but only helps to address the agency home support (and) group homes service rate shortfall for the short term," Cordes told the Press Herald.

Todd Goodwin, CEO of John F. Murphy Homes in Auburn, which operates group homes, said the extra money is appreciated, but does not address the scope of the problem.

"The help it provides is akin to the help a new bandage provides to an oozing wound when the previous one gets too saturated," Goodwin said. "The new bandage is entirely superficial and does nothing to alleviate the underlying condition that causes the need for the bandage in the first place."

In 2021, the Maine Legislature approved raising pay for direct care workers to 125% of the minimum wage, but didn't fund the increase in the state budget. So nonprofits were expecting an influx of money earlier this year, earmarked for worker raises, that never came.

Jackie Farwell, Maine DHHS spokeswoman, said in an email response to the Press Herald that the Mills administrated has ensured that "rate adjustments were appropriate to support workers receiving at least 125% of minimum wage. The department has fully funded these rates."

But Ray Nagel, executive director of the Brunswick-based Independence Association, which operates group homes and provides services for adults with intellectual disabilities, said the Mills administration changed the underlying funding formula, undermining the promise of paying workers 125% of minimum wage.

He said instead revenue coming to nonprofits has remained flat, other than the one-time influx of American Rescue Plan funding.

Cordes has said that the group home workforce shrank by nearly 30% during the pandemic, as the pay is low and people can earn more at less challenging jobs. The services are primarily funded by Medicaid with a blend of federal and state dollars.

About 2,500 people are employed in adult group homes, serving a population of about 1,900 adults with intellectual disabilities. In total, about 5,800 adults with intellectual disabilities receive some type of state services, such as day programs.

The Mills administration has worked to direct federal money to the industry to help shore it up while a long-term fix is sought.

"Maine designed and secured federal approval for this latest round of funding to accelerate the recovery of home and community-based service providers from the pandemic and to help advance the health, independence, and well-being of Maine people living with disabilities," said Jeanne Lambrew, Maine's health and human services commissioner, in a statement.

The $10.75 million will be sent out in two payments. The first will be $4.75 million designed for a "broad range of community and work supports for older adults" with intellectual and developmental disabilities, such as adults with autism or brain injuries.

The remaining $6 million will be a one-time payment for group homes serving the same population. Previously, the Mills administration set aside $120 million in "recruitment and retention payments" such as signing bonuses, for 20,000 direct care workers, not only for group homes, but also workers providing aging and behavioral health services.

Note: This story was updated Sept. 23 to correct outdated information about the numbers of group home residents and adults receiving services.