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New disability spending weighed

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Laura Marie Matthews, from Albuquerque, speaks at an event for people with disabilities in the Rotunda of the State Capitol in Santa Fe, Thursday January 23, 2020. It was disabilities awareness day at the legislature. Matthews said she has learning and physical disabilities. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – New Mexico is preparing to make what advocates describe as an unprecedented investment in serving people with developmental disabilities – thousands of whom wait years to receive services.

A spending package backed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and a key legislative panel calls for ramping up state funding to remove about 300 people from the waiting list, to establish a program that helps people who remain on the waiting list and to boost reimbursement rates for front-line care providers.

The increases are part of a broader $318 million general-fund budget recommendation – an 8% increase over this year – for the Department of Health.

“It’s unprecedented,” said James Jackson, a public policy associate for the advocacy group Disability Rights New Mexico. “This is far and away the largest requested funding increase for developmental disabilities that’s ever been made.”

Adam Shand, left, with Parents Reaching Out and has cerebral palsy , from Albuquerque, with help from Zachariah Cruz, speaks at an event for people with disabilities in the Rotunda of the State Capitol in Santa Fe, Thursday January 23, 2020. It was disabilities awareness day at the legislature. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The new funding is aimed at helping launch an overhaul of the state-run program that helps people with developmental disabilities and addressing the decadelong wait thousands of New Mexico families endure as they seek services.

About 5,000 people are on the Developmental Disability Waiver waiting list – a figure that grew about 43% over a recent five-year period.

Roughly half of those waiting are children, meaning they can receive some services at school, but many are adults waiting to receive funding for services they qualify for.

Overall, the average wait is up to 13½ years.

Advocates for people with disabilities filled the Roundhouse on Thursday to raise awareness and lobby for the increased funding.

“I strongly believe people with disabilities need to be heard,” Laura Marie Matthews, an Albuquerque resident with a learning disability, said Thursday. “We need action.”

Robert Kegel, a Santa Fe retiree whose son lives in a group home in Alamogordo, said low wages have created a “crisis” in recruiting employees to work with people who are developmentally disabled.

But he said he is happy to see money proposed in the budget to help providers and address other needs.

“That’s the best we’ve done ever, I think,” Kegel said.

The state budget package now under consideration by the House Appropriations and Finance Committee includes increases of:

• $5 million to launch a “supports” waiver that would provide at least limited services to 2,000 people on the waiting list. They or their families would be able to – within budgetary limits – choose among employment help, respite care, vehicle modifications and transportation, as well as other services.

• $7.5 million to remove about 300 people from the waiting list and provide them services. The governor’s goal is to eliminate the backlog over six years.

• $4.5 million to $5.9 million to improve reimbursement for people or companies providing services to people with development disabilities.

Rep. Melanie Stansbury, an Albuquerque Democrat and member of the appropriations committee, said the new funding for providers is critical.

Some staff members caring for people with developmental disabilities – in, say, a group home – make the minimum wage, advocates say.

“These providers, in a lot of cases, are making poverty-level wages,” Stansbury said in a recent budget hearing, “and they’re taking care of the individuals in our communities who have the highest needs.”

Democratic Rep. Harry Garcia of Grants told his colleagues that the increased services are important – not just for the individuals themselves, but also for their families.

“Without this,” he said, “people taking care of them suffer. They are human, too.”

Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel told lawmakers that the department is working to control costs, too. The agency is reviewing “outlier budgets to determine why they are so high,” she said, and receiving technical help from the National Association of Developmental Disabilities Supports Directors.

The state budget proposal for next year – covering the Health Department and other agencies – is now under review in the House appropriations committee and expected to be taken by up the full House by Feb. 5, the midway point of the 30-day legislative session.

The developmental disability services are broadly known as a “waiver” program because the federal government, for some states, has waived the requirement to use a nursing home or other institutional setting to provide the help.

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