Hundreds ask state not to cut funds for Day Habilitation programs in Shrewsbury

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By Bonnie Adams Government Editor

Shrewsbury – Several hundred people gathered at a public hearing held Feb. 23 at the UMass. Medical School's Hoagland-Pincus Conference Center to protest a proposed cut in funding by the Division of Health Care Finance and Policy (DHCFP) for critical day habilitation services for individuals with developmental disabilities.

DHCFP Assistant Commissioner Stephen McCabe and Deputy Counselor Mitch Goldstein heard impassioned testimony from social service providers, health care professionals and family members asking that the state not go ahead with the proposed cut of 3.74 percent to the so-called “day habs” that are funded by MassHealth. Also in the audience making their feelings known not with words, but rather with their presence, were dozens of individuals who attend day habs and would be directly impacted by the proposed cuts.

Day habs offer individuals with severe developmental delays, as well as medical, physical and emotional issues, a variety of therapies that their supporters claim give the individuals a much better quality of life. If the measure passes, the cuts would go into effect March 15, although that date may still change.

Three organizations – The Massachusetts Day Habilitation Coalition, the Association for Development Disability Providers (ADDP) and the Arc of Massachusetts – were instrumental in rallying their supporters to attend the meeting to plead their case. So many people, many of them using wheelchairs, walkers and other assorted medical paraphernalia, filed into the hearing room that another room had to be opened for the overflow. Some in the audience held up signs that simply said, “No Services = No life” and “Cutting $$ gets us nowhere.”

As the hearing started, Mc- Cabe noted that its purpose was not to make a final decision that day but to instead “entertain comments, receive data, views and arguments.”

Gary Blumenthal, ADDP's CEO, acknowledged that while the state had significant financial troubles, “it was choosing to balance the budget on the backs of its most vulnerable citizens,” by implementing this cut.

David Palladino, a staff paramedic at New England Arc, read testimony from a client, Brian, who receives services at Meridian Day Habilitation in Beverly. Brian, Palladino said, is a 49-year-old man who has spina bifida and a mild mental disability. In 2005, he also suffered injuries while being transported to an appointment, which left him deeply depressed. Meridian helped Brian “resume his voice,” Palladino said, to the point where “he is now politically active at the facility, is on Facebook and has even done a Power Point presentation of his care requirements.”

It is not only the individuals who will suffer if these cuts are made, many speakers noted, but family members as well. Rhonda LeSanto spoke of how she is the legal guardian for her 38-year-old sister, Heather, who is non-verbal, has severe intellectual and developmental disabilities, and requires a specialized diet.

In spite of this, DeSanto said, thanks to her therapy at the WCI Life Skills Day Hab program in Waltham, Heather now “can use language skills to communicate her needs. She is so much happier and proud of herself, because we can understand her needs and she is showing more independence.”

According to Kim Smith, a policy analyst with the DHCFP, the budget will reduce expenses by “approximately $1.5 million for the remaining months of S[ state] FY 2011. It is estimated that aggregate annual expenditures by MassHealth will decrease by approximately $5.2 million or 4.08 percent based on fiscal year (FY) 2010 expenditures for these services.”

In FY 2010, she said, MassHealth spent nearly $ 131.1 million, including $127.5 million for community services and $3.6 million for in-facility services. The program has 70 providers, 166 approved program sites and serves approximately 8,700 clients.