June 20, 2018
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Maine program for disabled children lacks accountability, report says

By Jackie Farwell, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — A state program that delivers $33 million in services for children with disabilities lacks accountability in its oversight and spending, according to an independent review.

Child Development Services has overrun its budget for the past several years, requiring the state to funnel millions of extra dollars to the program to meet federal requirements for special education.

Lawmakers asked the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability, the Legislature’s watchdog agency, to review the program’s spending. In its report, OPEGA found responsibility for the program was scattered, with the Maine Department of Education as the lead agency, another body tasked with some of its administration, and regional sites that independently managed services in different areas.

“The organizational structure of the CDS System is different than any other OPEGA has encountered in Maine State Government and seems to hinder the clear and comprehensive management of the CDS program on a statewide basis,” the report stated.

The Department of Education has worked to streamline the structure, including consolidating 16 regional sites into nine. In recent months, the department has focused on getting the program’s budget back on track, reacting to rule changes in the MaineCare program, and improving transparency, according to Deputy Commissioner Jim Rier.

OPEGA’s findings didn’t come as a surprise to Rier or Commissioner Stephen Bowen.

“Nobody ever sat down and designed this system,” Bowen said Thursday at a meeting of the Legislature’s Government Oversight Committee, where the report was presented. “This thing has evolved for years and years and years. Every new Legislature and every new administration has come in and taken a swing at it.”

OPEGA also found that the Education Department has failed to adequately monitor Child Development Services’ budget. Last November, an additional $3.6 million had to be shifted to cover its deficit.

State money accounted for about three-quarters of the program’s $33.5 million budget in the 2011 fiscal year.

“I think we’re light-years ahead of where we were when I came to this job, but … there’s more to do,” Bowen said.

While Child Development Services’ culture is rightly focused on quality services for children, potential savings are missed because not enough attention is paid to providing those services efficiently, the report found.

The program serves children with disabilities from birth to age 5 in accordance with requirements outlined in the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. The act requires public schools to develop individualized education plans for each student and specifies that students are entitled to services such as counseling, speech therapy and parent training.

While Child Development Services has worked to trim administrative costs, expenses for providing services continue to be high, OPEGA found. The mindset at Child Development Services is that service costs can’t be controlled because the law requires coverage for all eligible children, according to the report.

“That autistic child is very, very expensive,” said Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Biddeford, a member of the committee. “Unless we take the view that a certain child with a certain problem is too much money, [and] we’re going to discard that child, those costs are going to go up.”

The lack of efficiency presents the risk that some children receive more services than they need while others don’t get enough, the report states.

OPEGA’s report also said lack of coordination among Child Development Services, the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services creates the potential for fraud and abuse in the MaineCare program, which is billed for some of the services.

Additionally, staff productivity should be monitored more consistently and electronic data better managed, the report found.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, said the Legislature has been working on Child Development Services issues for a long time.

“I hope that, as a result of the work you’ve done, we can come up with something that’s a little more open, more transparent,” he said.

A public comment session on the report is scheduled for Aug. 14.

BDN writer Matthew Stone contributed to this report.


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