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Disabilities agency says problem of unspent funds is history

Maryland Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein told a town hall meeting in Columbia Tuesday night that the troubled Developmental Disabilities Administration has made significant progress since discovering $34 million in unspent funds last year.

“It looks like we’re in the red” by $4 million or $5 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30, “which is a good thing for this agency,” Sharfstein said, “but we don’t know yet.”

The $876 million agency provides services to 25,000 people with developmental disabilities, some needing round-the-clock care, but “it has the fiscal infrastructure of a very small agency,” Sharfstein said. So even though the books have closed, health officials still don’t have a firm dollar figure on what the agency actually spent.

Since audits disclosed chronic under-spending at the agency, about 300 more people have been taken off the waiting list of 7,000, and another 1,200 received short-term care. The length of time to assess people on the waiting list has been reduced from a year to three months, Sharfstein said.

New agency head, old problems

Although the DDA has a new head and a new chief financial officer since the budget problems were discovered by top health officials, the problems raised by audience members who questioned Sharfstein for 90 minutes were hardly new. They included low pay for the workers who actually assist the disabled — an average of $10 per hour — and slow pay by the agency for services that have been provided.

“Providers are failing out here,” said Kate Rollason, executive director of the ARC of the Central Chesapeake. “We can’t get staff.”

Providers also have difficulty providing their low-paid workers with health insurance, especially with new federal mandates looming.

David Wamsley, executive director of Emerge Inc. in Columbia, said the DDA owes his organization $1.4 million. “The department could accidentally put us out of business,” Wamsley said.

“We have a broken financial system,” Sharfstein conceded. “We’re trying to get a state-of-the-art system,” but that hasn’t happened yet.

After the meeting, Del. Guy Guzzone, House chair of the Joint Audit Committee who has long been involved with disability issues, said that “the good news now is that it is heading in the right direction.”

People served by the DDA range from those with mild intellectual disabilities who can be employed to people so severely disabled that they can do little to care for themselves.

The current budget talks in Washington on solving the deficit could also have an impact on the agency and those it serves. About 40 percent of the DDA’s budget comes from federal funds and the Medicaid program.

“The long-term fiscal threats are health care costs,” Sharfstein said. There has been much talk about the need to cut Medicaid expenses, but “cutting Medicaid is cutting developmental disabilities.”

“We’ll see how that plays out,” said Sharfstein.