In the span of a little more than six months, Maine drastically reduced its capacity to care for people with disabilities in crisis, potentially by as much as two-thirds.
When people with disabilities pose either a threat to themselves or others, the state is supposed to step in with assistance to calm them down and offer crisis beds to temporarily remove them from the situation.
But Maine is failing in its duty.
In 2013, there were 24 beds where people with disabilities in crisis could go in times of need. Sixteen of those beds were run by Employment Specialists of Maine, or ESM, an organization that offers residential and employment programs for people with disabilities. The other eight were run by the state.
In December, ESM announced it would not renew its contract with the state to operate its beds because it wasn’t receiving enough state funding to continue. This gave the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which is in charge of crisis services, six to seven months to find a new provider to replace those 16 crisis beds. Instead, DHHS apparently did nothing.
When the contract with ESM officially ended on June 30, there was no replacement. To this day, the state hasn’t issued a request for bids to issue a new contract, according to local disability services providers.
DHHS has declined to respond to questions from providers and the media about whether it’s still operating its eight beds. What is clear is that the crisis beds that do remain fill up quickly. With crisis beds often full and most group homes unable to accept new clients because of a staffing and funding shortage, people with disabilities are ending up in emergency rooms.
Per state law, Maine is supposed to provide “adequate capacity” for crisis services. If people with disabilities are ending up in the ER because the state has nowhere better to put them, it is clearly failing to live up to its obligation under the law. Hospitals shouldn’t have to step up because the state isn’t doing its job.
LePage has often touted his prerogative to save the taxpayers’ money. While nice in theory, the cuts come at the expense of people’s well-being. They have drastically reduced the quality of services, leaving providers struggling to keep their doors open and making some people with disabilities destitute.
It’s clear these organizations who serve the disability community are struggling. As of June 25, 24 group homes had closed, with another 12 expected to close, displacing more than 100 people with disabilities, all because of inadequate state funding. Meanwhile, the state has been silent about what, if anything, it plans to do.
The list of what’s needed to fix the problem has been growing for years. The Maine Legislature needs to raise Medicaid reimbursement rates, so providers can pay their workers a fair wage before more leave for better-paying jobs with less work and physical risk. It need to do so to prevent more group homes from closing.
DHHS needs to stop blatantly violating the law and start providing information it’s required to provide to the public — such as how many crisis beds it operates. Organizations that serve those with disabilities are trying to figure out what’s in store for the future not only for their own operations but the disability community in general.
By hiding away what’s happening with crisis services, the problem will only get worse. By doing nothing, the problem will only get worse. By continuing to cut disability services that are floundering already, the problem will only get worse.
Maine needs to rebuild this system — and fast.