Subject to available funding
When the price tag was under $1 million, the 2017–2018 Delaware General Assembly overwhelmingly approved bills that should benefit the disability community.
Delawareans with disabilities no longer will face discrimination in organ transplant determinations. School resource officers will be trained to use de-escalation, not restraint and seclusion, as a disciplinary technique. State health services won’t be able to “claw back” funds from ABLE accounts upon the beneficiary’s death.
The Legislature also started a program to forgive as much as $10,000 in student loans for educators in short-staffed fields, including special education. And with a growing population of students diagnosed with autism, lawmakers created positions for autism specialists who will offer training and assistance in schools across Delaware. The new Delaware Advance Scholarship Program will reduce tuition costs for students with intellectual disabilities attending college.
When a bill’s price tag topped $1 million, though, state lawmakers stepped forward, rocked backward, or stood still.
Case In Point I: Lawmakers made space in the budget for a one-time $2.9 million payment for K–3 basic special education. Bravo, so far as it goes. Schools will be able to hire and train critically-needed educators. But a bill to make the funding permanent died in committee. Missed opportunity.
Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman estimates every dollar invested in early education and intervention results in $7–$10 saved. It stems from the positive impact on the health, communication skills, cognitive development and social/emotional development of children with developmental disabilities. These children use fewer health and special education services. They are less likely to engage in criminal behavior. They have more success finding jobs. The state, in turn, spends less on education, health care and corrections while bringing in more tax revenue.
Case In Point II: Lawmakers appeared enthusiastic early on in their consideration of the Michael McNesby Act. The act phases in higher reimbursement rates to care providers for adults with I/DD, aiming to increase wages for direct support professionals (DSPs).
However, a late amendment added that payments would be “subject to available funding.” Disability advocates had asked for $9 million in fiscal year 2019, but the Joint Finance Committee decided on $4.7 million. Progress, but a paucity of progress.
Reports from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2006 and the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities in 2017 agree that raising DSP wages leads to improved health outcomes. It reduces the staff turnover and vacancy rate, which lightens each DSP’s workload. With more DSPs providing individualized care, adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities would need to rely less on other state health services. Moreover, DSPs—who currently have some of the highest injury and illness rates of all professions—would experience less physical and mental stress. The state would also spend less on health care and take in more tax revenue.
To their credit, Delaware lawmakers embraced much-needed disability legislation. They hesitated, however, to open the wallet wide enough to add other needed supports, despite the soundness of the investment. When, next year, similar opportunities present themselves, will they balk in the face of multi-million dollar costs or exhibit fiscal and social prudence?