By Matt Young, WV Press News Sharing
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — There is a health and safety crisis unfolding in West Virginia, and it is impacting a segment of the state’s population that is far too often overlooked – those with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD).
In a recent interview, several leaders within the state’s healthcare community discussed the need for increased and sustained federal funding in an effort to combat this crisis.
“This is a huge issue for us in West Virginia,” said Mark Drennan, CEO of the W.Va. Behavioral Healthcare Providers Association (WVBHPA), in reference to a worsening labor shortage. “The workforce is something that we’ve been tracking for a number of years, and we predicted this to happen beginning back about five years ago. We’ve written progressively more and more dire letters to our state and federal partners just showing what a bad situation was coming – and is now here.”
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines I/DDs as “a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas. These conditions begin during the developmental period, may impact day-to-day functioning, and usually last throughout a person’s lifetime.” The University of Minnesota clarifies the CDC’s definition even further, citing “autism, behavioral disorders, brain injury, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome, learning disabilities, and spina bifida” as being conditions which fall under the I/DD umbrella.
“A few years ago, we made the decision as a state to deinstitutionalize our congregate-care settings for individuals with I/DDs,” Drennan noted. “So instead of being served in large institutions, we’re doing what we think is better and serving those individuals in their home communities.”
Drennan further explained how – as a result of low pay and increasingly difficult working conditions over the last nine years – the WVBHPA alone has seen a workforce reduction from “over 14,000 to around 7,800.”
This reduction represents a dramatic decrease in resources, as the WVBHPA accounts for approximately 25% of West Virginia’s home and community-based service programs (HCBSs). This decrease falls in line with the national average, as some estimates show the turnover-rate to be as high as 50% annually. West Virginia, it seems, has been particularly hard-hit by the workforce reductions. Kevin Trippett, president and CEO of Westbrook Health Services, cited areas such as Wood County as being understaffed by nearly 75%.
“We are desperately short on staff,” Trippett noted. “Our managers – who really need to be traveling from home to home, ensuring compliance and addressing needs of the workforce – are actually having to pick up shifts. Some are working many weeks in a row without a day off.”
Trippett further explained how the staffing-shortage has resulted in Westbrook’s inability to accept new clients who are in need of services. HCBS programs provide these services to individuals living in their own homes, as well as those residing within a group-home environment. At $108 million, the state provides approximately 25% of the annual HCBS funding. The other 75% is provided by the federal government.
West Virginia advocates are encouraging members of Congress to include $150 billion in additional HCBS funding in the reconciliation spending package that is currently being negotiated.
“Westbrook had established 10 group homes in Wood County, and three group homes in Spencer (Roane County) to take care of these individuals,” Trippett said. “The problems for us started when the state took on a minimum wage increase. When the state increased the minimum wage, it did not increase the rate of reimbursement for the services. For us, that meant that our costs went up without any change in the revenue source to cover those costs.”