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Budget cut plan hits homes for disabled

(ran PW, PS editions of Pasco Time)

Kerry Mauk, a 36-year-old autistic man from St. Petersburg, used to gnaw on his hand before he moved into Goodwill's Suncoast Residential Center on 102nd Avenue.

Through the program, however, he learned coping skills that have allowed him to go to work as a recycler at Goodwill Industries on Gandy Boulevard. It is a success story that local nonprofit groups say has been repeated throughout Pinellas and Pasco counties.

"He has a purpose in life now," said his mother, Sherryl Mantell of St. Petersburg.

Mauk has bought furniture for his bedroom with his earnings and donates some to the poor at Christmas. But his family fears that his 18 years of progress could be in jeopardy.

Suncoast Residential Center and other providers of services to the developmentally disabled learned Oct. 24 that the state plans to pay them, on average, 14 percent less for taking care of their clients than what they believed in July they would be getting.

As a result of that change, which is scheduled to go into effect Saturday, Suncoast is projecting a $126,000 deficit this year in its $700,000 budget, said Jean-Marie Moore, the director of human services and operations for Goodwill Suncoast.

"We don't know what we're going to do," she said. "We just found out about this six days ago."

One thing they've decided to do is take their cause public. Goodwill was one of 20 service providers that orchestrated a rally Thursday on the front lawn of Indiana Street Group Home, a six-bed Palm Harbor program catering to seniors with physical illnesses and developmental disabilities.

Speaker after speaker harangued the nearly 200 people gathered, demanding that Tallahassee restore the funding.

But it's not going to happen, said Shelly Brantley, director of the state's Developmental Disabilities Program. The cuts are necessary to avoid a $27.5-million budget deficit in the program this fiscal year, she said.

"It's the law and we are following the legislative provisions," she said.

Here's what happened: In July, the state published a new set of reimbursement rates for providers of services to the developmentally disabled. The new rate schedule eliminated decades-old variations in repayment rates, lifting some providers to the new standard.

Under the old reimbursement schedule, Suncoast was a loser and last year ran a $160,000 deficit, which Goodwill Industries Suncoast covered. Under the new schedule, Suncoast expected to become a beneficiary that would get just enough in reimbursements to cover its $700,000 in projected expenses.

The state set aside $25-million more than it spent last year to cover the new reimbursements.

The state also made another key change. Instead of capping reimbursements at 240 days per client per year, it decided to allow all providers to get reimbursed for 365 days of service for the first time.

In the past two months, however, providers have sought reimbursement for many more days per client than the state expected. That has created such a run on the additional money the state allocated that the program's budget would be depleted without budget adjustments, Brantley said.

Since July, the average provider has been requesting rehabilitation at a rate of 350 days per year, which represents a 38 percent increase in the average number of days reimbursed last year, she said.

The state expected to raise the average provider's reimbursement rate by only 5 percent this fiscal year, and that is still going to happen, Brantley said. For example, she said, the average provider is getting an extra $150 per month per client for residential habilitation and an extra $50 per month for adult day training.

If the state spends anything more, it won't be able to help the thousands of people who are waiting to enter such programs, she said.

"We have 12,600 people currently waiting," she said. "Our priority is to make sure that any new dollars appropriated by the Legislature go to them."

Moore rejected that reasoning. Providers are claiming more days of care because the care is 24 hours a day, seven days a week, she said.

"What am I supposed to do with the people who are in my group home now?" she said. "You don't get the people off the waiting list by throwing the people here into the street."

The sudden budget adjustments have thrown many Suncoast region providers into disarray. Brantley said she has been meeting and discussing the problems with two statewide provider associations for weeks.

But Curt Thomas, president and chief executive of PARC, a St. Petersburg provider with five homes, said he just heard about the changes when the state officially announced them last Friday.

"We haven't even had time to figure a solution out," he said.