by Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder
A key state agency will recommend a slightly higher wage increase for caregivers who work with people with disabilities in Georgia and who would see a $6 hourly rate increase under the proposal.
The state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities is wrapping up a review of what it pays its service providers, who employ workers known as direct-support professionals.
An earlier version of the study’s conclusions received pushback from providers and advocates when it initially settled on $15.18 for these workers. That was nearly a $5-per-hour increase from today’s $10.63, but short of what providers said they need to compete in an age when retailers and fast-food restaurants are offering similar pay.
The study’s findings were revised to recommend $16.70, which is about $2 lower than the rate pushed by providers who say some locations are at risk of closing their doors.
Still, the change is a “meaningful tweak,” said Diane Wilush, president and CEO of United Cerebral Palsy of Georgia and a board member with Service Providers Association for Developmental Disabilities.
“It’s not where we want to be at the finish line but it’s really meaningful, and we’re grateful for that,” Wilush said Thursday.
The study is just the first of a two-phase process since the review alone does not increase provider rates.
It is up to Gov. Brian Kemp and lawmakers to decide whether to move forward with the recommendations and fund them in the state budget.
It would cost about $107 million annually to follow the study’s lead, representing a 44% increase. The federal government will also match the state with more than $200 million in new funding.
The state Department of Community Health must also formally request approval from the federal government. It’s a time-consuming process that likely would not result in more money in workers’ paychecks until sometime next year.
Lawmakers signaled this session that they intend to act on the study’s findings and keep the process moving along. House budget writers added – and the Senate kept – language but no funding in next year’s budget to that effect: “Begin implementation of the 2022-2023 provider rate study pending approval by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).”
“This line item does not direct us to adopt the rates or to make use of them. (It’s) simply to begin the implementation process,” Chris Hamilton, chief financial officer at DBHDD, told the agency’s board Thursday during a budget presentation. “And again, any one of these items is subject to change since the bill has not yet been signed.”
The governor is in the middle of the 40-day bill-signing spree that follows every legislative session. Kemp has the power of the veto – including when it comes to individual line items in the state’s $32.4 billion budget. He voiced concerns about “significant holes” in the spending plan even before lawmakers approved it in the final hours of the legislative session.
“Nothing is final until the governor’s pen is stroked on that,” DBHDD Commissioner Kevin Tanner said to board members.
The budget, which takes effect in July, also includes nearly $10 million to cover Medicaid services meant to keep people with disabilities in their homes and communities. That is enough to cover about 500 people who are now on a waitlist that includes more than 7,000.
The department’s staff and board members heard from some of the parents of those waiting for services during a public comment period at Thursday’s meeting.
Yolanda Barber said her adult son’s 82-year-old grandmother has been caring for him but recently said she can no longer look after the 26-year-old during the day while Barber works.
Barber said her son, who has autism, has been on the waiting list for more than seven years.
“To be honest with you, if I don’t have a place for him to go, I can’t work,” Barber said. “I’m trying to figure out how we get the waiver approved, how we can get the services that we need so our family can continue to function.”
This story was written by Jill Nolin, a reporter at the Georgia Recorder, where this story first appeared.
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