December 10, 2019
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LePage owes Mainers with intellectual disabilities more than lip service

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Gov. Paul LePage speaking at his final State of the State address on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2018, in Augusta.

During his State of the State address earlier this month, Gov. Paul LePage urged legislators to “fully fund” services for adult Mainers with intellectual disabilities and autism. Some 1,700 people across the state are on a waitlist, hoping a residential placement with the intensive staff support they need will open up.

It’s fitting that LePage simply called from the podium for legislators to appropriate funding. He’s paid Maine adults with intellectual disabilities lots of lip service over the years. But when it comes to actually taking action to ensure Maine’s system for caring for those with intellectual disabilities survives, he’s done little.

On July 1, the funding that Maine group homes receive from the state to support their residents is slated to drop without an injection of new state funding. If the funding falls, group homes will collect an hourly rate from the state that’s 10 percent lower than what they collected in 2007. And that doesn’t even account for inflation.

Group homes struggle to pay more than minimum wage to the direct support professionals who spend their days helping residents with disabilities take their medications, get out into their communities, and stay safe. With such low pay for long hours and taxing work, group home operators say they have more vacancies than ever. Without sufficient staff, they’ve closed group homes, which limits the state’s overall capacity to deliver the services people with intellectual disabilities need.

There’s legislation pending that would raise the hourly rate group homes are paid. But it’s not LePage who’s sponsored it. In fact, his administration doesn’t even support it, saying a comprehensive study of what it costs to run a group home needs to happen first — as group home operators close more homes and contemplate more closures.

LePage hasn’t proposed another vehicle to “fully fund” these needed services, so it’s unclear what lawmakers should make of the governor’s demand.

The LePage administration, similarly, has left another element of Maine’s disability services system in limbo.

Until last year, the state had a network of 24 “crisis beds” — places where adults with disabilities experiencing behavioral crises, perhaps due to a medication or environment change, could stay temporarily and receive specialized help before returning home or moving onto another living situation.

The state lost 16 of its 24 beds last June after the contractor providing and staffing those beds didn’t renew its contract. There are eight remaining crisis beds in the whole state to serve thousands of people who might need the stabilizing service at some point. Not even all eight beds are regularly available.

The LePage administration has taken no action to restore the lost beds, even though Health and Human Services Commissioner Ricker Hamilton pledged last October to “move quickly” to restore them and that the department had funds available to do it. The state hasn’t entered into a new crisis bed contract, nor has it even issued a request for proposals from potential service providers.

As the administration lets group homes teeter on the brink of insolvency and takes no action to restore a missing link in what is supposed to be a system of services, it’s difficult to take LePage seriously when he urges the Legislature to make the state’s population of adults with intellectual disabilities and autism a priority.

The Legislature should take the measures it can to stabilize the state’s system for caring for some of its most vulnerable residents. It just doesn’t have an example to follow in LePage.

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