CLEARWATER — Dozens of developmentally disabled Pinellas County residents will lose their homes and treatment programs due to sudden budget cuts instituted last week by Gov. Rick Scott.
Scott's emergency order, slashing state reimbursement for service providers by 15 to 40 percent, has left some caregivers unable to continue their services for such low reimbursement. Families are scrambling to find new providers able to work for what some called "devastatingly low" pay.
At the Upper Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens in North Pinellas, 30 people in group homes and day treatment programs were discharged from services they had depended on for years. Their support coordinators now have 30 days to find replacements for homes, caregivers and treatments, many of them highly specialized.
One of those discharged is Catherine Smith, 29, who has severe behavioral problems and the mental capacity of a 10-year-old. For the last seven years, she has received 24-hour care in a women's group home in Palm Harbor staffed by people with special training in dealing with such behavior issues. Catherine recently was hospitalized for stabbing a pen under her skin.
Timothy Smith, a father of five who fought in court to find Catherine a home to suit her needs, said she is having trouble dealing with the emotions of the change.
"She has to give up her home, give up her friends," he said. "We all sat around a table today in tears. These are people that meant a lot to her."
Smith said he knows of no homes nearby that could cater to her special needs, classified by the state as the most severe — and expensive.
Smith voted for Scott for governor because he recognized the state's financial issues, but now questions his judgment.
"I understand now why you can't run a government like a CEO runs a company," he said. "When you're the CEO of the state, and you willy-nilly make cuts and pay no attention to how those cuts affect people, you're taking people who can't take care of themselves and putting them on the street."
UPARC executive director Sheldon Hershman said he had expected a cut in state pay, but not as severe as Scott's. Every link in the chain of services — from home managers to sitters and therapists — faces what amounts to an instant pay cut. One example: companions who transport, care and teach the disabled are now paid only $9 an hour.
PARC, a nonprofit in St. Petersburg that is one of the largest service providers in the state, stands to lose $700,000 over the next three months. Executive director Sue Buchholtz, who said she was in "shock," expects the cuts will result in layoffs and lost services.
At least one service now on the chopping block: supportive living, where the disabled live in apartments and receive some care — a step toward independence.
Buchholtz said she is frustrated that, of all the state inefficiencies to target, "the first place they cut is the provider agencies. … It's ridiculous that we're taking the brunt of the bad leadership and bad management of a state agency."
Also baffling, she said, is that the providers were not given advance notice. The agencies cannot stop services to their clients without a 30-day notice. Scott's emergency order, announced last Thursday, went into effect the next day.
"To tell us the night before it goes in effect," Buchholtz said, "it's just unacceptable."
Scott said his order would help close the $174 million deficit for the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities. "We've got to come up with a way to care for the vulnerable," he said. "But we've got to do it in a way that we can afford."
Deborah Linton, executive director of the Arc of Florida, a state office representing 47 chapters like PARC across the state, said providers face mandated staffing patterns, annual leases and other factors that make it nearly impossible to instantly cut spending. And many of the nonprofits, like UPARC, already subsidize their programs with local donations and reserves.
"This is a crisis, trying to find where these people are going to go," Linton said. "These rate cuts hit really hard … and folks can't afford to do it. We have the business governor, and this is a terrible business decision."
Sue Schramek, the executive director for Advocare Trust, a Clearwater nonprofit that cares for the disabled after their parents die, spoke of developmentally disabled twins who were left on their own two decades ago. They walked into a day program carrying everything they owned in two brown bags.
They were moved into a Palm Harbor group home, where they made friends and received treatment. Now, after 23 years, they must pack up and move.
"I'm mad at the system that puts people out of their homes where they spent the last 20 years," Schramek said. "They have nobody but us."
Contact Drew Harwell at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.