By Kim Walter
MIDDLETOWN -- The most prevalent topic at Friday's state budget hearing was mental health, and the funding necessary to keep vital services associated with it up and running.
The hearing, held at Lord Fairfax Community College's Middletown campus, brought several congressional representatives and a state senator to hear what local residents, health care providers and community leaders think about the next year's budget.
Parents and caregivers of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mentioned "The New Virginia Way," a campaign launched by advocate group The Arc of Virginia.
The campaign pushes for improved access to community-based services for all Virginians with disabilities, regardless of age, diagnosis or complexity of support needs. A December report by the Arc provides an overview of current barriers to community integration, which include waiting lists, inadequate waiver reimbursement rates and a reliance on large, segregated settings.
A recent settlement between Virginia and the federal government provides a framework for a successful transition, but speakers at the hearing reminded representatives that further action is required in the upcoming budget to implement the system.
Specifically, The Arc, as well as family members who experience care giving first hand, are asking for additional ID/DD Waivers to help more than 7,000 individuals in the state who are on waiting lists for services. Speakers also asked for support for infants and toddlers with development delays by ensuring access to early intervention services, and help for people with ID/DD who are ineligible for a waiver, but remain at risk of institutionalization.
Gretta Doering, of Winchester, spoke to the panel of representatives about her 21-year-old son who has cerebral palsy and is a recipient of a DD Waiver. Her son qualified for the waiver quickly, and was on a waiting list for less than a year.
"Over the years we have benefited many times thanks to the waiver," Doering said. "However, we have also witnessed a significant decrease in providers, mainly due to the poor reimbursement rates or not being reimbursed in a timely manner."
Doering's home had to be modified because her son uses a motorized wheelchair, and she said that while the waiver provides for those modifications, only one builder in the area was willing to work with it, and after a short time, quit.
"Unless there is a qualified provider, the waiver is useless," she said.
The waiver also provides Doering's son with attendant care, but she remains his primary caregiver.
"The DD Waiver reimbursement rate for attendants is currently $8.86 an hour for Frederick County, with no benefits," she said. "Finding someone to take care of another individual at such a low rate without benefits is all but impossible."
Lana Hurt, of Cross Junction, agreed that home health care providers "wear out" quickly because of current reimbursement rates for their services. Hurt has a 29-year-old son with autism and a moderate intellectual disability.
"If we want to improve our system of care, we need to care for the people who deliver the care. This is simply what is fair and what makes sense," she said. "Quality care requires quality staff. It's a quid-pro-quo system. When we give too little, we get too little."
Several speakers mentioned Healthy Families, which helps with early childhood intervention and providing services and connecting resources to create positive outcomes at an earlier age.
The program offers screenings shortly after birth, as well as follow up check ups to make sure infants are developing - mentally and physically - as they should.
Amanda Eckerling, of Harrisonburg, spoke in support of funding for similar early intervention services, as they were "life-changing" for her son.
"Because of what early intervention services have done for my son, I fully support the New Virginia Way," she said. While her son received a waiver, now that he is aging, services and basic developmental appliances are slowly being removed from the home.
"It's kind of creating a waiting list crisis," Eckerling said. "But I want as many people to get waivers as possible ... without the help I'm not sure where my son would be today."
Del. Beverly Sherwood said she remember when Healthy Families first started, and applauded the work the organization does.
"Everything we've heard today is very insightful," she said, wrapping up the hearing. "Please know that as we go to Richmond later, and then to the General Assembly, your messages are with us."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org