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Pa. human service officials say budget proposal will eliminate wait list for disability services

The Pennsylvania state Capitol in Harrisburg.
Matt Rourke
The Pennsylvania state Capitol in Harrisburg.

More than 6,000 Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities or autism are on an “emergency” state waiting list: meaning they need services and supports now but aren’t getting them.

Gov. Josh Shapiro has said he wants to eliminate the waiting list, and has proposed putting an additional $483 million in federal and state funds to do so into this year’s budget. The money would go toward direct support professionals, also known as DSPs — workers who provide care for people like assistance with bathing, eating, and other daily activities, but who are often paid a low wage. State officials said the money would allow wages for DSPs to increase from approximately $15 an hour to $17 an hour.

It’s unclear if the Governor’s proposal will survive what could be a contentious state budget process, but advocates said they are pushing to make sure it is included in any final Harrisburg spending package.

“These are things that are game changers that need to happen,” said state Rep. Dan Miller, a Mt. Lebanon Democrat who has long championed disability issues.

“These are things that so many of us have been waiting to happen. We're not talking about creating new programs, really. We're talking about making sure our promises are kept,” Miller said, speaking at a recent local event put on by state human service officials to promote the governor’s proposal.

State Human Services Secretary Val Arkoosh said the governor’s plans would eliminate the emergency waiting list over “several years,” but said there isn’t an exact date as to when.

Still, just the fact that a governor is proposing eliminating the waiting list is significant, disability advocates said.

“I think it's a really big deal,” said Mark Davis, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disability.

Advocates have been pushing for enough funding to end the waiting list for decades. The last governor to propose eliminating the waiting list was Tom Ridge, though it didn’t come to fruition after he left office in 2001.

Steve Suroviec, president and CEO of Achieva, which provides a number of disability services, said he is encouraged that the governor’s proposal would raise wages for workers who provide services, which is key to making the proposal actually work, he said.

“That's critically important because absent the ability to hire [direct support professionals], you can have all the waiting list initiative you want, but if you can't find DSPs to actually provide the service then it's not really going to help the people,” he said.

A state budget — passed by the House and Senate and signed by the governor — is due by June 30th, though budgets are routinely not completed by that deadline. Last year’s budget was not fully completed on time, largely due to a dispute between Democratic Gov. Shapiro and the Republican-controlled state Senate over school vouchers.

Legislators and Harrisburg observers have said this year’s budget has the potential to be contentious again — though if that happens, it will likely be over issues that have nothing to do with the waiting list.

However, supporters of the governor’s proposal have also gone to great lengths to point out that they see the issue as a rare non-partisan area of agreement.

“Intellectual disabilities and autism affect residents in every county and every state senate district, and every state legislative district,” said DHS Secretary Arkoosh. “This is in no way, shape, or form a partisan issue. This is an issue of just simple human dignity and decency, and making sure that every resident of Pennsylvania has the services and supports that they need when they need them.”
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