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Groups serving people with disabilities cope with state budget cuts

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The state’s ongoing fiscal crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to temporary funding reductions for some cities and postponed planned pay raises for state workers. It’s also led to reductions to some smaller programs, including a key organization that has helped New Yorkers with intellectual disabilities navigate the pandemic. The program is slated for significant cuts this month.   

The seven care coordination organizations holistically manage the needs of more than 105,000 New Yorkers who have intellectual and developmental disabilities, including autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and chronic seizure disorders.  

Nick Cappoletti, the CEO of LIFEPlan NY, which administers the centers, said that in the height of the pandemic, the care coordinators personally contacted each of their clients and helped them navigate the shutdown and infection risks. 

“Some people, they didn’t even have a phone (with which) to contact them,” said Cappoletti, who added staff provided loaner cellphones to some clients so that they could keep in touch with them. 

Created just two years ago, the centers coordinate services, including therapies, behavioral health specialists, job placement and recreational opportunities for their clients. But they also manage medical and dental care, and even housing, access to food and legal services, because some of their clients become homeless. Cappoletti said that became even more important during all of the disruption this spring. 

“Are they housing-insecure, food-insecure, do they have a potential risk with the loss of a caregiver?” said Cappoletti, who added the centers put those in need in touch with food pantries and medical providers.   

“That work continues to be ongoing,” said Cappoletti, “to keep this population well and safe.”  

The centers are facing $75 million in cuts, representing 16% of their budgets. Cappoletti said they expect to have to lay off hundreds of staff members, including registered nurses and licensed social workers. The care centers would also have less time and money to help clients as the pandemic continues.  The death rate from COVID-19 is higher for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Cappoletti said he knows the state is very short of funds because of the revenue drop from the effects of the pandemic. He also says Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been very supportive of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

He also said he knows that ultimately, the federal government will need to pass another relief package to help state and local governments out.  But he said cutting the program now will cost more money in the long run, because the centers help prevent an “unintended crisis,” like a child with autism having a behavioral issue that leads to a visit to the hospital, or someone with a chronic illness who has not received the proper attention. 

“And we can make sure that they get to a health care provider,” he said. “And ultimately, that could save money as opposed to expensive emergency room visits and hospital admissions.”  

He said it’s also possible to switch some older clients to the federal Medicare program to relieve some of the costs for the state. 

The state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities said in a statement that the cuts won’t have any effect on services, and that the agency is dedicated to providing services for the state’s most vulnerable residences.   

“There are no anticipated changes to the services provided as a result of this targeted approach, which implements savings goals included in the enacted budget,” said Jennifer O’Sullivan, director of communications for OPWDD. “Providing support to New York’s most vulnerable residents is critical to ensuring all New Yorkers have the opportunity to live a full life.” 

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.