Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Health care providers in community plead for help

Funding woes lead to staff turnover, program cuts

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ANNAPOLIS — Agencies that care for the physically and mentally disabled are pleading with lawmakers to restore funding that would pay for programs and salary increases.

‘‘It’s a challenge now figuring out who we can provide services to,” said Mitzi Bernard, executive director of United Cerebral Palsy of Southern Maryland, whose group has run a deficit for three consecutive years. ‘‘I look at people’s disabilities now ... and say, ‘Can I afford to do that?’ I never used to do that.”

Some organizations have already eliminated employee insurance coverage, vacation days and other benefits, causing turnover that has left some facilities severely short-staffed.

‘‘Turnover is going to cause accidents [through] negligence that none of us want to see,” said Janice Frey-Angel, president and CEO of Melwood, a developmental disabilities organization that serves more than 2,000 people in the Washington area. ‘‘We can’t provide the basic care for the people whose families put their trust in us.”

Advocates asked for a 4 percent budget increase for their programs, which then could be used to supplement salaries, food, rent, utilities and gas. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) budgeted for only a 1.5 percent hike in his fiscal 2009 spending plan. State employees are slated to receive a 2 percent pay raise.

The Senate voted to use $13 million in extra lottery revenues to bump the increase to 3 percent. The House built in a more conservative estimate of $4.3 million that would boost the raise to 2 percent.

The advocates also want lawmakers to restore $2 million cut from a $12 million transitional youth program.

As of Tuesday morning, budget negotiators had yet to strike an agreement on funding for health providers. One option presented on Friday would split extra lottery money between stem cell research and those who care for the mentally and physically disabled.

‘‘Most of our chapters have huge deficits right now and they’re at a point of saying even if there’s a crisis, they can’t take new people,” said Cristine Marchand, executive director of the Arc of Maryland. ‘‘... When agencies have to balance paying the utility bills versus paying for gas to take someone to church, that’s dire.”

Nonessential activities are cut back as a result, Marchand said. ‘‘Who suffers the most are people who have the most intense needs.”

The fiscal woes have touched nearly every developmental disabilities program, said Donna Retzlaff, executive director of Spring Dell Center Inc. in La Plata. The organization is supposed to have 120 positions, but it carries 38 vacancies. ‘‘It’s something we’re living with day after day.”

Stagnant salaries have led to high turnover rates, Bernard said.

‘‘We have a hard time keeping people because we can’t pay what other people pay,” she said. ‘‘Our starting salary is $9.50 an hour. You can make that flipping burgers.”

Legislators are sensitive to the advocates’ pleas but told them other programs are strapped.

‘‘I can certainly relate to their issues,” said Del. Sue Kullen (D-Dist. 27) of Port Republic. She has been a disabilities advocate for 25 years and worked for the Arc of Southern Maryland for 12. ‘‘Nonprofits are used to running their agencies on a shoestring, and the shoestring is broken.”

The Senate’s 3 percent recommendation is a ‘‘Hail Mary pass” that depends on lottery revenues significantly higher than what’s expected, Kullen said.

The House projection is more reasonable, said Del. Mary-Dulany James (D-Dist. 34A) of Havre de Grace, who oversees the budget for disabilities programs. ‘‘It’s what we think is a better projection for overattainment of lottery revenues,” she said.

If more lottery money comes in, the House wants to allocate it first to stem cell research and then to disabilities providers.