Throughout Maine, dedicated and committed front-line and essential workers are addressing COVID-19 in innumerable ways, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Included in that group of essential workers, although not as readily recognized, are thousands of direct support professionals who every day are providing one-to-one, hand-to-hand personal, hygienic and medical care and support for some of Maine’s most vulnerable citizens – adults with intellectual disabilities. According to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data, “group homes for people with intellectual disabilities have made up nearly half of the state’s outbreak sites,” the Bangor Daily News recently reported. While restrictions on businesses and community engagement standards are starting to be relaxed, it is clear that direct support professionals are still right on the front lines every day, doing their best to keep COVID-19 at bay for Mainers in fragile health.

Over the past year, when direct care workers in other fields – nursing homes, home health, elder care – received additional funding from the Legislature or Department of Health and Human Services rate increases, there was no additional funding for direct support professionals and the people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who they serve across the state in residential settings. They were effectively abandoned, with the DHHS reimbursement for their essential work equaling less than the minimum wage.

After waiting over two months for DHHS to apply for and access emergency K waiver funding and leverage it thoughtfully and effectively, as so many other states have done, Maine’s plan only temporarily increased funding by a limited amount – 10 percent – for intellectually and developmentally disabled adult services that hadn’t closed because of COVID-19. Most service providers used those funds to pay a several-dollar-an-hour premium to those staff, who were then and remain now on the front lines. While their day-to-day efforts to combat COVID-19 and keep people safe continue, unfortunately that 10 percent increase ended May 31.

Children with intellectual and developmental disabilities are also affected. Maine’s Department of Education recently announced that all Maine students had or would receive computers or tablets and free access to the internet so they could receive remote services and continue their education. Sadly, preschool and other children with autism and intellectual disabilities in therapeutic community-based programs were not included, did not receive these resources and were not given the same opportunities as children in public school settings.

As a fiscal conservative, I understand the need to stand firm and marshal resources when looking into the eye of a storm. I also understand the short-, mid- and very long-term effect of not keeping critical services whole and how that can ripple out and negatively affect an entire state for generations to come.

Here are some of the facts:

• For every $1 that DHHS is providing for a temporary rate increase through the K waiver, the state Medicaid budget is saving 50 cents in what it would have been paying providers had their programs been operating normally.

• Maine will be receiving over $160 million in additional funding for MaineCare programs as a result of a 6.2 percent increase from the federal government through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

• Maine has received over $1.2 billion from the federal CARES Act to specifically address COVID-19-related issues, and not one penny has gone to providers of services for children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

• Maine DOE received $44 million from the federal CARES Act.

Here are some clear actions that the administration can take with these existing resources:

• Extend and increase the reimbursement rate in the K waiver funding for intellectual and developmental disability services, so that direct service providers can be paid an hourly wage higher than minimum wage.

• Reimburse essential service providers for the extraordinary coronavirus-related expenses they have had for personal protective equipment, supplies and staffing.

• Provide computers and tablets and internet access to all Maine children who receive therapeutic early intervention so that they can participate in distance learning.

Maine has a proud and rich history of doing the right thing even when it is not easy or requires more effort. That’s why I know that we can do better.

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