Plans to improve the workforce, quality-of-life services and housing for developmentally disabled people in New York are one step closer to being finalized for the next five years.
The state Office for People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) must submit its final 2023-2027 comprehensive plan to the Legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul by Nov. 1.
Members of the state Assembly grilled OPWDD Commissioner Kerri Neifeld for hours during a public hearing in Albany on Tuesday.
"I see a list of destinations, not a roadmap on how to get there," said Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti, who chairs the People With Disabilities Committee. "The document they've done so far has a comprehensive list of concerns, but it's really very vague."
Addressing the health workforce staffing shortage is at the top of lawmakers' priority list to improve services for people with developmental disabilities.
Lawmakers are frustrated millions of dollars for pay raises and bonuses for health workers allocated in the 2022-23 state budget haven't been distributed. They allocated nearly $150 million for higher wages and $1.2 billion for the one-time bonuses more than five months ago.
"The Budget Office has to get moving a lot faster," said Abinanti, a Democrat from Greenburgh. "The Department of Health has to get this money out the door. We have a crisis — a workforce crisis."
Neifeld says the holdup is with other state agencies like the state Budget Division and Department of Health involved in negotiating pay rates with providers.
"The current COLA rollout is consistent with prior years in a normal process that is only new in its volume and intricacy," Budget Division spokesman Shams Tarek said in a statement Wednesday. "Some providers have already begun receiving increases and others are in process. Under the long-standing rate process, state agencies and the NYS Department of Health establish new rates for Medicaid services and these rates are ultimately approved by the NYS Division of the Budget and submitted to the Federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The payment of health care worker bonuses – a massive program worth more than $1 billion for more than 800,000 New Yorkers – is also on track for planned fall distribution," Tarek added. "The first claiming window for bonuses closed on Sept. 2 and DOH is processing October payments to providers as expected and as communicated during negotiations with the Legislature."
The Health Department referred to employer and employee eligibility information on its website about the NYS Health Care and Mental Hygiene Worker Bonus (HWB) Program and FAQs. The department is processing claims it received during the first vesting period. Employers must claim bonuses for their eligible employees within 30 days of each vesting period and must pay those bonuses within 30 days of receipt of payment.
Low pay for high-stress work and long hours has led to high turnover. The ongoing labor shortage contributes to a void in services for the developmentally disabled statewide.
OPWDD's draft plan shows facilities for the developmentally disabled in the state have 25% vacancies on average, with some having as high as 40% openings for employees.
"None of the parts of these plans, as great as they are, will work without a workforce," said Assemblywoman Taylor Darling, a Democrat from Hempstead.
Naomi Adam, a self-advocate, testified to lawmakers the department fails to help employ developmentally disabled people and doesn't ask for enough input from them.
"I have a college degree — I have training," she said. "I have skills. I have worked in the system. I get nothing... I get no support."
Abinanti said developmentally disabled people can help fill the workforce gaps. He also stressed the need to tackle the state's housing crisis for developmentally disabled people, including more housing options besides group homes.
"OPWDD's mission needs to be better fleshed out," Abinante said. "The agency needs to better supervise the private sector. It needs to fill in the gaps the private sector can't deal with and it needs to expand its focus to cover some areas where there's a huge gap."
Lawmakers urged the department to include specific annual benchmarks in the plan to address the issues and impact change, and not just list vague goals.
"We're seeing what happens when we put things aside and hope it works itself out," Darling said. "We are now in the space where I can't imagine the funding that we would have to invest right now to bring us whole."
Legislators plan to fight hard for more funding to support the workforce during budget negotiations this winter.
Several witnesses Tuesday said people with developmental disabilities and their families are often unaware of services available to them.
About 1-2% of the population has a developmental disability. That means between 200,000 and 400,000 New Yorkers could use OPWDD services of the state's population of 20 million.
Only 122,000 people are enrolled in the Department in the State, meaning hundreds of thousands go without the help or resources that could provide them with a better quality of life.