EDITORIAL: This is wrong, governor

IT SOUNDED LIKE A SCAM as big as some of the Wall Street rip-offs that led to the Great Recession. The fat cats reportedly bilked the federal government out of billions and spent the money lavishly on… caring for people with developmental disabilities?

Coarc is the largest agency in the county caring for people with developmental disabilities. If you haven’t seen the Lamborghinis and Rolls Royces that Coarc now uses instead of buses, don’t waste your time looking for them. They don’t exist. But the federal government has determined that for decades the state was reimbursed far more than New York was entitled to receive for programs aimed at helping people with developmental disabilities–perhaps as much as $15 billion. The question now is who’s responsible for repaying that miscalculation, and the answer so far doesn’t look good for Coarc, this county or the people who benefit from the programs run by private, non-profit service providers statewide.

Governor Andrew Cuomo did not create this problem. For years the federal government signed off on reimbursements to what is now called the state Office of People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD). But Washington has decided it was too generous and it will pay much less from now on. And by the way–the over-payments federal officials approved?–it wants that money back.

The state operates its own centers as well as funding private non-profits like Coarc, which supports over 500 local people with developmental disabilities. To address the new, lower level of federal funding, late last month the governor issued amendments to his executive budget–the proposal he prepares for the legislature to consider. Under the innocuous heading “Replace lost Federal revenue,” there’s a phrase that says the state will cut 6% in OPWDD “Medicaid rates” to not-for-profit providers. That would save the state $120 million. And because it’s money that would have been matched by the federal government, the actual amount diverted from programs for developmentally disabled people in the next year under the governor’s budget would be $240 million.

Coarc’s share of that cut would be about $1 million. That won’t close the agency, which has an annual budget of $22 million and employs almost 400 of our neighbors. But it would mean lost jobs at the county’s fourth largest employer. A 6% cut might not sound big until you understand that it completely wipes out the modest state increases in OPWDD reimbursements to private agencies over the last 6 years. And that’s on top of a $900,000 cut two years ago.

The executive budget documents online don’t indicate any cuts to state-run programs, and the state agency’s spokesperson was not available for comment. Coarc officials acknowledge that the populations cared for at state-run centers differ from the folks served by Coarc, but they say it costs $4,500 a day for care at a state facility; it costs Coarc $5,000 a month to provide for the people under its care.

While the vast difference in the cost involves many factors, it underscores the argument by made by Coarc and similar private organizations that the overpayments from Washington went to reimburse state facilities, not to fund non-profit providers. Yet now the governor has placed the burden of the cuts on organizations that did not directly benefit from the errors made by the state and federal governments. That is fundamentally unfair and should not be adopted in the budget.

Though humans caused it, this is an extraordinary situation comparable to a threatening storm–one targeted at people least able to protect themselves. Averting that blow will require special resources. That doesn’t have to mean higher taxes. Instead, it means that the cost of cushioning federal funding cuts and maintaining effective, private, non-profit programs like Coarc should be spread across the entire state budget not foisted onto organizations that didn’t create the problem in the first place.

Agencies like Coarc have made great progress toward what they call community integration of people with developmental disabilities. These would arrest that progress and push the standard of care backwards toward the old, less humane model of custodial care. We all know the types of nations that overlook the needs of people with disabilities. We like to believe that’s not the way Americans do things.
The governor is not the bad guy here, but public pressure can and should be used to convince him that his budget holds innocent people responsible for a crisis they did not create. That is unacceptable and Mr. Cuomo can change it.

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