The most vulnerable Pennsylvania residents are at risk. Only legislators can fix this Opinion
Well Richard C. Edley
When the primaries were over and politics was on a short pause, we returned to legislative activity, as lawmakers have only a few weeks to draw up a final plan for government spending by the end of the fiscal year on June 30th.
The plight of the most vulnerable Pennsylvania residents and their families should be a top priority.
COVID-19 has exacerbated the labor crisis, which affects almost all areas of human services, including intellectual disability and autism, mental health, drug-related disorders, services for children, brain injuries, physical disabilities and rehabilitation services. Staff turnover is epidemic. Open positions remain unfilled. The number of vacancies is at the highest level.
This situation affected all human services; many family members had to quit their jobs to fulfill a role that was once played by direct support professionals. Similarly, with fewer clinical professionals (e.g., in mental health), many people in crisis find it harder to access care or do without services altogether. Collaborative agencies face difficult choices: cut services or eliminate programs altogether because there are simply not enough staff and professionals to provide services.
Direct support and clinical professionals who remain at work work more hours, at night, on weekends, at night and overtime. The situation is exacerbated by the administrative burden (such as regulations) imposed on public sector institutions. Individuals make the difficult decision to move away from their chosen career. When staff leave these professions, the state’s human services network simply is unable to serve the thousands of Pennsylvania residents who are currently receiving and awaiting critical services.
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Individuals who go out to work with vulnerable citizens do so out of a mission and a desire to help, but that doesn’t have to mean living in poverty. Most human service professionals pay less than $ 15 an hour, which is simply not competitive, especially for such complex work that requires great skills to master to ensure proper performance of specialized life-sustaining tasks.
These human service professionals are trained to assess and support individuals with significant needs, such as children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental health disorders, physical disabilities, and other severe and chronic health conditions.
The services provided can help a person live in their locality, supporting their basic daily needs, thus ensuring their health and safety through medication, providing classes and life skills training and more.
Wages in all other areas of employment have risen, so competition from the private sector is much tougher. Some warehouses pay more than $ 20 an hour – with subscription bonuses. It may not be the job they want, but immediate support and clinical professionals now have more reason to change jobs and change careers.
Because human services are funded primarily by Medicaid, the agency agencies that employ these professionals cannot simply raise prices as private businesses to pay higher wages. State legislators have a role to play.
Investments in human services are investments in our future Opinion
For more than a decade, the Commonwealth has chronically underfunded health and human services, and therefore caregivers. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the difficult situation.
Fortunately, it seems that lawmakers and the administration are finally recognizing the problem and trying to help. The state, for example, has received permission to spend federal money under the U.S. Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to maintain parts of home and community services.
But the distribution is not close to solving a larger and more widespread problem. This labor crisis is getting much worse and faster, so more needs to be done now.
Pennsylvania now sits on billions of federal dollars and public “black day” funds that can be used to raise wages to help maintain immediate support and clinical professionals, and to attract and train new labor. However, this money remains unspent because the needs of our most vulnerable residents and their families are not being met.
During the pandemic, many direct support specialists and clinical specialists were named heroes. It’s nice to compliment them, but it’s time to pay them a fair, life-sustaining salary that shows the value of the care they provide and recognizes their importance in the lives of the individuals and families they serve.
Richard C. Edley is president and CEO of the Association of Rehabilitation and Public Providers. He writes from Harrisburg.