HELENA – Nonprofit firms that care for thousands of mentally disabled Montanans urged the Bullock administration Wednesday to honor a 4 percent annual increase in their payment rates, as approved by the 2013 Legislature.

“We are woefully, woefully underfunded,” said Fran Sadowski of Missoula Developmental Service Corp. “I’m here to ask the state of Montana to really do what’s right and what was intended by our legislators.“

Sadowski’s company is one of 70 private, nonprofit firms that run group homes and day services for developmentally disabled adults and children in Montana.

They’re funded largely by Medicaid, the state-federal program that pays medical costs for the poor and disabled, and the state sets the rates for these providers.

Officials from these firms from Miles City to Hamilton came to Helena on Wednesday to testify against a Bullock administration proposal to enact a 2 percent increase in rates for the providers this year, and look at “different options” for the additional 2 percent.

The providers said legislators who voted on the state budget last month clearly intended the full 4 percent increase to go to all providers, this year and next.

They said they’ve had only one rate increase the past four years, are seeing high turnover for underpaid employees and have had to neglect needed maintenance for their facilities and equipment.

“We were told to bite the bullet and hang on until new funds were available,” said Wally Melcher, CEO of Helena Industries. “Well, we’ve done the best we could to hang on. ...

“Let this hearing reflect that Helena Industries has completely chewed off the damn bullet, and are suffering from an acute case of lead poisoning.“

In an interview Wednesday, Richard Opper, director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the administration is not trying to “blow off legislative intent here or anything,” and is considering whether to tie the additional 2 percent increase to “performance measures.”

“That’s what the hearing (Wednesday) is about ... to see if this might be worth pursuing” he said.

Opper also noted that the Legislature took money from the budget of the Montana Developmental Center in Boulder to fund the additional 2 percent increase – about $2.2 million over two years, out of an annual $15 million budget. MDC is the state institution that cares for about 50 developmentally disabled people.

Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, who led the charge to take money from the MDC budget, said Wednesday she believes MDC won’t have a budget shortfall, especially if it moves more of its clients from Boulder to community-based programs – which are run by the private firms that testified Wednesday.

Caferro is the state coordinator for The Arc, a national organization that works on civil rights for the developmentally disabled. The Arc works with Aware Inc., one of the largest providers of services for the disabled in Montana.

Caferro said the budget passed by lawmakers says the money can be spent only on the annual 4 percent increases, but administration officials maintain they don’t have to spend the full amount.

Yet no providers testified Wednesday in favor of anything but the full 4 percent increase.

“It was clear that legislators wanted this increase to go directly to providers, some of whom are struggling, with no strings attached,” said Mike Sadowski, CEO of Ravalli Services Corp. in Hamilton.

The state will accept public comment on the proposal until May 30 and then decide what to do.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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