Mentally, Developmentally Disabled Care Providers Find it Tough Going on Low Wages

By LAURA SCHWARTZMAN, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS (Feb. 20, 2008) - Some developmental disability and mental health care providers are facing a financial crisis due to inflation, according to supporters of a bill requiring increases in yearly cost of living adjustments from the state.

Workers are making average salaries of $22,817, well below the state median for high school graduates, according to the Maryland Association of Community Services. The low salaries force many to take second jobs just to make ends meet.

Care workers, clients and families told their stories at a packed House Health and Government Operations Committee hearing Tuesday, sometimes drawing gasps, applause or even personal advice from lawmakers.

"It really is a sad commentary on the state of affairs that these providers have not been given a decent raise so they can take care of [their needs]," said Delegate Joanne Benson, D-Prince George's. "These people get the crumbs at the table."

Benson is sponsoring a bill requiring the state to annually adjust reimbursement to community developmental disabilities and mental health service providers for inflation. But the bill's fiscal policy note predicts an additional $36.3 million in costs for 2009.

Supporters argue that hospitals and nursing homes receive cost of living adjustments of 4 to 7 percent each year. Community developmental disability and mental health providers received a total of 4 to 6 percent over a seven-year period ending in 2007, according to the Maryland Association of Community Services.

In a written statement, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary John Colmers said he is "supportive of the concept" but concerned that enacting the bill would prevent the agency from expanding existing developmental disability programs, which already have a 17,000-person waiting list.

Supporters argue that the lack of funds drives down the quality of care.

Ian Paregol, executive director of Community Services for Autistic Adults and Children, said his 600-person organization sustained a loss of $700,000 in 2007 due to increases in transportation, food, utilities and health insurance costs.

Most of his employees, he said, have second jobs.

Supporters also argued that clients suffer due to high turnover and vacancy rates.

Beth Greenland of Baltimore County, whose 23-year-old son Andy Greenland suffers from a rare metabolic disorder, receives services from Penn-Mar Organization, Inc. in Baltimore.

"[Andy] needs a consistent, content and well-paid team of people in order to stay healthy- really, in order to stay alive," she said. "When his house manager quit this time last year, he sunk into a depressed state for over a month."

She estimates he is cared for by a new staffer every three weeks. Other parents said their children injure themselves when beloved staff members leave, and turnover can have a particularly harsh effect on autistic individuals, who thrive on consistency.

Direct care workers are reluctant to leave but often feel they have no other choice.

"Not only do I live check to check, I live lease to lease," said Angela Jordan, 32, a program coordinator for Mosaic Community Services who has one child and is expecting a second. "I now find myself in the position of having to choose between staying in the community mental health field, or being able to afford the cost of living."

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