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Editorial: State falling short for developmentally disabled

They are some of our most vulnerable residents.

So it is especially troubling that the state has fallen woefully short in exploring ways to deliver services ranging from speech therapy to respite care to thousands of New Mexicans with developmental disabilities since programs were shut down in March due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

The services are provided under the state’s two Developmentally Disabled Waiver programs. With the benefit of these services, adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities are much more likely to live at home, semi-independently or in group homes, rather than being institutionalized.

Jenna Montoya, for example is a 33-year-old woman with cerebral palsy. After the lockdown, she started receiving physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy through telemedicine hookups. But there has been no substitute for the community support program she attended three days a week for six hours a day prior to the lockdown. That program closed in the middle of March under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s state health orders and Jenna and her family have had minimal contact with the support group provider.

Meanwhile, nearly 70 agencies that provide services – or at least did before the lockdown – have continued to receive 80% of their normal funding through a Medicaid waiver program designed to keep staffing of the agencies intact so they don’t have to start from scratch when the lockdown orders are relaxed.

“There is no incentive for these provider agencies to offer any services,” said Jill Tatz, the mother of two adult children with cognitive disabilities. “There is no transparency on how they are spending the money or if they have retained staff.”

Tim Gardner, legal director for Disability Rights New Mexico, told Journal investigative reporter Mike Gallagher that some agencies are trying to provide some services while others are doing nothing. And he said while confusion early on was understandable, at this point “it’s hard to understand how there is no clear oversight structure.”

A state spokesman says the Department of Health has now “implemented a process to track the 80 percent retainer payment for each DD Waiver provider agency.”

But why hasn’t there been a serious effort to see which of these services might be ramped back up in a way that helps the developmentally disabled while minimizing risks of COVID-19 transmission? If face shields and cashier barriers can work in offices and supermarkets, why can’t some of those techniques be adapted? Or efforts to provide even more services via Zoom?

Providers are still getting paid so perhaps there isn’t much incentive. But this should be a matter of serious concern for the governor and her health secretary, Kathy Kunkel. This fragile population merits a lot better effort than we’ve seen from the administration. When the governor announced in March that K-12 schools would remain closed for the rest of the academic year, the state and school districts, to their credit, launched a concerted effort to switch to a learn-at-home model. While the results leave much to be desired, it’s definitely better than nothing – which essentially is what much of the developmentally disabled community has gotten.

It’s past time for the governor and her team to turn their attention to this issue. Better late than never.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.