Providers for disabled worry about finances

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Edward Monk’s job was tough — even before a global pandemic hit.

Monk is a caregiver for two men with Down syndrome in a residential home.

As a direct support professional, he assists those he cares for with tasks like grooming, preparing meals, administering medications and generally helping the men he cares for live in their Mt. Lebanon group home and be part of the community.

Like everyone else, their routines have been upended by stay-at-home orders and social distancing.

For the clients Monk cares for, not being able to go to their jobs has been particularly difficult, he said in a phone interview.

“One of the guys asks me every day if he gets to go back to work. … It’s hard to explain, I don’t even have an answer for when that is even possible. I just have to keep reassuring him that someday, his work will come back up.”

Agencies that serve individuals with disabilities are facing numerous challenges — both in terms of trying to stop the spread of COVID-19 and keep their residents and staff safe — as well as dealing with the emotional hardships of lost routines and being unable to see family in-person, said Carol Ferenz, director of the IDD division at the Rehabilitation and Community Providers Association, a statewide group representing health and human service providers.

Furthermore, the pandemic is straining what was an already-stressed system of workers and mainly non-profit providers — direct support professionals typically earn low wages and have high job turnover, leading to a number of pre-pandemic vacancies. Providers can’t raise wages without additional reimbursement from the state’s Medicaid program.

Many programs have been paying higher wages and additional overtime because they were under the impression the state would be paying higher rates, though it is unclear if that will happen now. They also have the increased costs of obtaining cleaning products and personal protective equipment supplies, said Mark Davis, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disability.

“Our community is really at risk of just being decimated. … We were just not in any kind of position to absorb this,” he said. Providers are hoping for additional funds from the state to cover their costs, he said.

State human service officials say they’re aware the situation has stretched providers — though the state is financially strapped as well.

“We realize the financial strain that the COVID-19 pandemic has placed upon providers. Over the past several weeks, DHS has been collecting data from providers on the impact of COVID-19 in an effort to develop plans that will stabilize the provider community and ensure they are able to serve participants once the pandemic is over,” said Erin James, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Human Services.


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