RI worker shortage is ‘crisis in its own right’, say social service providers

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PROVIDENCE, RI (WPRI) – When Tina Spears’ son suffered a head injury as a young child, he was sent to the newborn intensive care unit for a month.

After his release, doctors told Spears he needed the Early intervention program, a government-funded program administered by non-government providers that offers a range of physical, occupational, and speech-language therapy to infants and toddlers with developmental delays.

The intervention is essential for early childhood development, Spears said, suggesting it could be the difference between a child who talks and doesn’t talk when they grow older.

Today, five of the nine early intervention providers scattered around the state have stopped accepting referrals from pediatricians, hospitals and emergency rooms. Meanwhile, around 75 new infants and toddlers per week are seeking early intervention, creating a waiting list of hundreds.

Advocates say the backlog is a symptom of the “total crisis” shaking the state’s network of health and social service providers.

“We have been in a state of crisis since the pandemic,” said Spears, who is now executive director of the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island. “But even before the pandemic, the system struggled to maintain its financial viability. ”

On Thursday, a group of 70 organizations wrote a letter to Governor Dan McKee and the General Assembly, calling on lawmakers to hold a special legislative session and allocate more than $ 100 million of the $ 1.1 billion in funding. of the American Rescue Plan Act and other areas. to support the state’s health and human services network.

“Without immediate action, the safety net we provide for so many vulnerable young people could crumble,” Tanja Kubas-Meyer, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition for Children and Families, said in a statement. “We need to stabilize our network of community agencies and the essential support they provide to so many children, youth and families in Rhode Island.”

So far, legislative leaders have not said publicly whether they plan to return for a special fall session, and spokespersons for House Speaker Joe Shekarchi and Senate Speaker Dominick Ruggerio have not said. not immediately responded to a request for comment on the letter.

On the surface, the supplier network faces problems that resemble other industries: a workforce crisis. Nonprofits providing government-funded services are struggling to hire new employees and maintain existing ones, and the group said it was “crippling the health and service delivery system. social ”.

As a result, there is a lack of various programs, such as early intervention, the state child welfare program, and support for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, according to the group. And the long-term effects could be devastating, they argue.

“The instability of the community health and social services system has an impact on children in Rhode Island, people with disabilities and with behavioral health problems, and the elderly who depend on this workforce and the community. viability of the organizations that employ these workers, ”the group wrote in the letter.

McKee spokesperson Lexi Kriss said the governor and his team “fully understand the workforce issues affecting our health and social service providers, and recognize the need for federal funding. to ensure access to services for Rhode Islanders “.

“Children, seniors, people with disabilities, and people with behavioral health issues rely on a dedicated workforce to provide the services they need,” Kriss said. “Rhode Island needs to invest some available federal funds to support these workers and the people they serve. The governor and his administration will connect with stakeholders and our partners in the legislature to further discuss this issue. “

The problems of financing the supplier network are anything but new. Rhode Island has not updated its reimbursement rates for many organizations offering government-funded programs for years. As a result, employee wages have remained low even as the cost of living has risen, Spears said.

“They are paid a pittance,” she added, noting the $ 15.75 an hour earned by people who work with adults with intellectual disabilities.

“Dunkin ‘Donuts is paying more than that right now,” Spears said.

To address the issue, the group is calling on the legislature to allocate $ 100 million in ARPA and other funds to increase salaries for community health and human service providers. The money would also be used to cover additional costs associated with operating during the pandemic and “kickstart a strong workforce development strategy,” according to the letter.

The group is also asking lawmakers to consider using funds from its $ 51 million budget surplus, as well as its $ 115 million to $ 150 million in enhanced FMAP funding for home and community services.

The group criticized the state for being the only one in New England that “has not released any funding from the American Rescue Plan Act,” saying it should be disbursed now, because wait until the start of the session. Normal legislative action in January would be detrimental to the industry.

“We just can’t wait to respond to the current crisis until January, especially when funds are available today,” Spears said.

Eli Sherman ([email protected]) is an investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.



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