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WCDC pushing back against federal cut of work program

(Feb. 13, 2015) Worcester County Developmental Center in Newark is fighting new federal regulations that threaten to compromise the ability of the center, and similar ones statewide, to assist people with disabilities with vocational training.

While the state is developing a plan to comply with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ rule on Home and Community Based Services [CMS], the developmental center is requesting letters of support during the public comment period that ends Feb. 15.

“CMS provides approximately half of the funding for services to people with disabilities across the country,” Jack Ferry, the center’s executive director said in a statement. “States do not want to take any chances with this large amount of money. CMS wants people with disabilities to be more integrated into the community and so do we. However, all people with a disability are being painted with a broad stroke, which could jeopardize individual choice.”

Vocational training centers, like the developmental center, are being targeted by the Department of Justice, the agency that enforces the CMS ruling.

“Even though there is no rule against vocational training centers in either the Olmstead ruling of 1999 or the CMS final rule, the DOJ has gone after these facilities in other parts of the country because they feel these centers treat certain clients differently and pay a commensurate wage to its clients that is below the minimum wage,” Ferry said.

While Ferry said the center’s goal is to “help everyone work and live independently in the community” the reality is often different.

“While we have a number of clients who have gone through our employment training programs and are now working successfully in the community, there are many more that come to our facility every day who are not yet ready for community employment but take steps towards independence by performing real work that is contracted through local employers,” he said. “They also learn important skills of social interaction.”

The CMS proposal, Ferry said, replaces facility-based employment and training with “community-based activities such as volunteering, recreation and socialization.”

“While these activities are fine for some, and should be a choice for those who wish it, we believe employment is a better path to economic and social independence while more accurately reflecting the stated goals of the DDA,” he said.

“Our clients are paid for all the work they do,” Ferry continued. “Work for all of us is not only a way to provide for ourselves and our families, but it is also a way we contribute to society. Our clients understand this. They may not know exactly what the dollar amount on the check means, but they know that check means they accomplished something. They know that they contributed to society.”

Belinda Gulyas, principal at the Cedar Chapel Special School and a developmental center board member, worried the federal initiative would “eliminate work for any client who would like to work as part of their program at WCDC.”

“It’s not that WCDC is closing, it’s not that they’re not going to offer services, what this federal mandate is going to do is it’s going to eliminate the work option for our clients who have the most significant disabilities,” she said.

Gulyas touted the center’s ability to match different tasks and different jobs to a variety of clients with different abilities and aptitudes.

“Their job might be exactly what they are able to do,” she said. “They may only be able to do a certain part of the job, given their physical and their cognitive disability, so they’re paid for that part of the job that they’re able to do.”

Gulyas said the initiative would affect all similar organizations statewide, including the Somerset County Development Center and Dove Point.

“All of these agencies are facing the same thing,” she said.

Berlin Mayor Gee Williams wrote a letter, on behalf of the town council, supporting center

“The Berlin mayor and council are actively and deeply interested in the services of WCDC,” William said in the letter. “We have been impressed with their steadily growing record of outreach and success in providing employment opportunities that ultimately provide a path to economic and social independence, goals clearly supported by the [Developmental Disabilities Administration].”

The town, Williams said, “put our money where our mouth is,” granting $7,500 to the center during the current fiscal year.

“We fear the CMS’s idea is a classic example of good intentions that ultimately lead us down the road to hell,” William said. “I suspect some of the motivation to move away from facility-based employment is driven by the potential to reduce costs. Quite frankly, their idea may be a viable alternative for a very limited number of WCDC client-citizens, but the reality is that there are simply many more people who come to the WCDC facility every day who are not yet ready for community employment.”

The letter went on to “strongly urge” CMS to not replace programs such as those offered at WCDC with one that “is very likely suitable for a fraction of the folks now being served.”

Ultimately, Ferry said the center’s leadership feels that individual choices for people with disabilities should be made on a personal level, rather than at a federal or state level.

“We are requesting you act by sending a letter or email telling the Maryland transition team that if they are serious about client choice, all options, including the choice of working in a facility-based employment training program, must be offered,” he said.

Letters expressing viewpoints on the Maryland’s plan must be sent by Feb. 15 to DHMH, 201 W. Preston Street, Baltimore, MD 21201, or Dhmh.hcbssetting@maryland.gov.

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