At least 24 homes that care for people with intellectual disabilities have been forced to close their doors over the last year, which displaced 69 people with disabilities, according to a recent analysis by the Maine Association for Community Service Providers.
An additional 12 homes have confirmed with the association that they will be closing within the next six months, displacing about 40 more people with disabilities, for a total of 109.
The providers who operate the homes say they can’t find and retain enough qualified staff members to work for meager salaries. And they can’t pay their staff more because of inadequate funding stemming from declining reimbursement for services paid for by MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid.
It’s unknown what happened to all the people with Down Syndrome, autism spectrum disorder or other types of intellectual disabilities who had to find new living arrangements. But some became homeless; others are in jail.
“We know of people who are living in tents waiting for placements, sitting in jail waiting for placement,” said Todd Goodwin, the president of the Maine Association for Community Service Providers. “They’re cast to the wind.”
Goodwin recalled giving a bed to one man at Community Partners Inc., where he is CEO, who had been staying in the emergency room.
“He didn’t need to be there,” he said. “He sat in a room, sat in a hallway for two weeks, precisely because there were no organizations out there that could take him. This is the problem with the system, and it’s growing. And the state doesn’t really have a plan for it.”
Goodwin said his organization, which is based in Biddeford, closed three homes within the last year “as a direct consequence of our inability to staff those homes. Right now, today, I have another program that sits empty. It sits empty because I can’t find the staff to staff it.”
In 2007, the people who directly cared for those with disabilities made an average hourly wage of $10.37, according to the association. Today, they make $9.17 an hour, just above minimum wage.
That means the organizations running the group homes are competing with retail outlets for employees.
“We are having staff leave for better-paying jobs,” said Bonnie-Jean Brooks, president and CEO of OHI, a provider based in Hermon. OHI has closed two homes in the past year. “They don’t have to be on call; they don’t have to get bitten; they don’t have to work overtime; they get better benefits.”
The number of group homes that have closed, or are about to close, is likely more than 36, and the number of displaced people greater than 109. The association asked just 10 of its 70 members for details on closures, and plans to ask more in the coming weeks. About 1,800 people receive group home services throughout the state, according to the Maine Office of Aging and Disability Services. The association is not aware of any new group homes opening to accommodate these individuals.
About 1,555 people remain on a Section 21 waitlist for housing in group homes or other settings with near-constant oversight. Section 21 is the section of MaineCare that regulates services for people with intellectual disabilities.
There is a bill, LD 967, sponsored by House Majority Leader Erin Herbig, D-Belfast, that would raise Medicaid reimbursement rates for community support providers, so they in turn could increase wages to attract more workers.
It originally proposed restoring the reimbursement rates back to 2007 levels, while adjusting for cost increases and inflation between 2007 and 2016. The bill has been passed by the Maine House and Senate, but it awaits funding by the Legislature’s appropriations committee.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services opposed the bill. “It is our intention to review all rates under all sections of MaineCare. This bill, as written, does not properly assess the rates provided,” said department spokeswoman Samantha Edwards.
Providers don’t dispute that the idea of a formalized rate study makes sense, Goodwin said, but the process would take at least a year, and by then it would be too late.
“We are drowning as we speak. We need immediate relief,” he said.
The funding for the bill continues to fall. As recently as last week, lawmakers were discussing providing about $15 million, Goodwin said.
The sum could provide immediate relief in the short-term, Goodwin said, but “what it wouldn’t do, however, is help us out relative to increases in the minimum wage that are set to take effect over the next few years.”
Edwards, with DHHS, said the LePage administration has supported Mainers with intellectual disabilities. “In fact, this industry has seen an increase of nearly $100 million since the LePage Administration took office,” she wrote in an email. She did not respond to further questions asking what, exactly, the money funded.
Goodwin acknowledged that overall spending has increased, but much of that money has been dedicated to services for the increasing number of people deemed eligible for services. It is also earmarked for services for people on the waitlist who are unable to receive those services until staffing is increased. Some of the money, he said, has gone toward funding less-intensive services like day programs to support them until a spot in a group home opens.
The amount dictated in the original bill, $65 million, would allow providers to operate efficiently, said Lydia Paquette, executive director of the Maine Association for Community Service Providers. And the more funding is reduced, the more it becomes a temporary Band-Aid to the larger issue at hand.
“The system is falling apart as is,” Paquette said. “Every day it’s just a cut further. My guess is that we’re looking at a matter of months before the whole system collapses.”
If you know of a group home closing in your area or have a loved one who lost a home due to a group home closing, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BDN Reporter Danielle McLean contributed to this report.
Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to email@example.com