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COVID-19 poses new problems for people with disabilities

Addressing issues that people with disabilities are facing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Teresa Miller, the state’s secretary of Human Services, said that the current health crisis is “a new battlefield for people with disabilities.”

“This is a a vulnerable population of people who already face unique challenges in a world where accommodations for the disability community are rarely won without a fight,” Miller said.

Speaking at an online press conference call, Miller was joined by Kristin Ahrens, deputy secretary of the Office of Developmental Programs and Kevin Hancock, deputy secretary of the Office of Long-Term Living. Miller stressed that her department if working to ensure that the rights of individuals with intellectual, physical and developmental disabilities receive equitable access to health care during the pandemic.

“We will not tolerate discrimination and allocation of life-saving resources based on any factor, including but not limited to age, disability and socio-economic status,” Miller said.

Ahrens, whose office works with individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism, administering home, community-based and intermediate care facility services said that one of the reasons the population her office serves is so vulnerable is that they have a higher prevalence of some of the conditions that make someone more susceptible to COVID-19, such as hypertension and diabetes.

“We also serve a population that is dependent on care,” Ahrens said, noting that the concepts of social distancing cannot be applied in the same way to someone who is dependent on others to assist them with certain activities.

During the pandemic some of the new social and hygiene rules are all something that have become a new way of life, but for people with intellectual disabilities and autism they pose a challenge.

“These very significant changes in the rhythm of life that we are all working through — those are made more challenging for people who have an intellectual disability or autism,” Ahrens said.

Ahrens noted that there are currently 56,000 people of all ages, intellectual disabilities or autism that are served statewide.

The Office Developmental Programs has set up four guidelines in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. These include such things as limiting the number of professionals going into people’s homes by delivering services, if possible, in a remote setting.

Because of the governor’s stay at home order, the department of Human Services closed all pre-vocational and adult training facilities which had served 15,600 people on a daily basis, according to Ahrens.

Ahrens added that screening of staff and residents for COVID-19 has also been implemented.

“We know that the pandemic is challenging for most, if not all, of us. The stay at home, the kind of alienation and isolation that can happen is very challenging, but again, particularly for individuals with intellectual disabilities and autism,” Ahrens said.

In the midst of the pandemic, where there is a need to quarantine individuals who have been exposed to the disease, Ahrens said that guidelines have been put in place to allow for service to be provided in places where they would not typically be, such as a hotel room.

Importantly, through an agreement with the federal government, which Ahrens cited, payment for the services of direct support professionals in the hospital setting will be allowed.

“A direct support professional (is able) to assist someone in a hospital setting to make sure that their needs can be communicated that they can understand the diagnosis or treatment that the healthcare professionals are working with them on,” Ahrens said.

Hancock noted that his office focuses on the 460,000 individuals in the state with physical disabilities and are dually eligible for Medicare and Medicaid, working thorough managed care partners.

Because the adult day programs, which his office works with, have been closed by the governor’s order, Hancock said that his office has been working with managed care organizations and with adult day providers to make sure those services are provided.

“With all disciplines we had between 8,000 and 11,000 individuals receiving adult day services in Pennsylvania. With the closures, we made sure that those individuals are now receiving services in a different configuration, but the life saving services are now being covered,” he said.

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