Nebraska care providers claim state hypocrisy

AP News
Posted: Nov 11, 2009 10:27 AM

Pay at some state-funded programs where people with mental disabilities are cared for in Nebraska is so low that McDonald's workers make a higher hourly wage.

"Why would you work here?" said Linda Redfern, director of the Scottsbluff-based Region I Office of Human Development. Overseen by elected county officials, the office provides day and round-the-clock residential services to 190 people in 11 Panhandle counties.

Redfern and others across the state who help people with developmental disabilities likely won't have a better answer to that question again next year if Gov. Dave Heineman's budget-cutting plan is approved by lawmakers. Those who care for the developmentally disabled say his plan to ax previously approved, state-funded pay hikes next year for people who care for people with mental disabilities could keep them from expanding at the same time state officials say they want to move more people out of institutions and into the programs.

The plan is part of his wide-ranging proposal to shave $334 million from the two-year state budget over the next couple weeks during a special legislative session called to respond to drooping state revenues.

"It's such an ironic set of circumstances. If we weren't in the middle of it all, it would be unbelievable," said Alan Zavodny, CEO of Northstar Services, which provides services to about 300 developmentally disabled people in 22 northeastern Nebraska counties.

"At the same time community-based programs are falling behind, we're talking about increasing the number of people in the community." Northstar now serves about 300 people and he said it's likely fewer will be served next year.

Zavodny, president of a state association of organizations that serve the mentally disabled, predicted some would go out of business if Heineman's plan is approved.

State officials strongly disagree and say they expect capacity at the programs will actually increase even if providers like Zavodny don't get an increase in state funds next year to boost employee pay. State-funded pay hikes that went into effect this year and that Heineman's proposal won't change allowed Redfern, for example, to increase starting wages to $9 an hour from $8.30 an hour.

"I'm not buying that at all," Jodi Fenner, director of the state's developmental disabilities division, said of claims that nixing the previously planned pay increases for next year would shutter some organizations. "I agree it's a financial hardship, but am I afraid we'll lose capacity? I don't think so."

Fenner said that the stream of money that follows mentally disabled people into community-based programs where they get job training and more interaction with the general public is not being disrupted under Heineman's plan. Flat funding for employee pay, she said, may narrow the profit margins of businesses such as Zavodny's, but shouldn't limit their ability to expand.

Also, Heineman's plan doesn't attempt to take any of the $10 million lawmakers set aside early this year to help reduce a waiting list of mentally disabled people wanting services.

Lawmakers set aside the money after attempts to improve the Beatrice State Developmental Center, where hundreds of cases of alleged abuse and neglect of mentally disabled residents were reported in 2006 and 2007, drew attention to the waiting list of about 2,000 people.

As of Nov. 6, 1,717 people were on the waiting list. State officials say some people on the list are already receiving services but have requested additional services.