Aid for some service providers is simply too little, too late

Aid for some service providers is simply too little, too late

 A $30 million relief package for Minnesota’s disability service providers will be a lifeline for many. But for others, it is too little, too late. 

In photo above, from April 2015, LeSueur County Developmental Services maintenance man Jon Johanneck operated the wheelchair lift on a new, wheelchair-accessible, 14-passenger bus. LCDS is one of the service providers shutting down due to the pandemic.

Gov. Tim Walz August 14 signed the funding bill into law, just days after it passed during a legislative special session. The funding helps providers who had to shut down in the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The shutdown created a dire financial situation for nonprofits that provide an array of employment, training, recreational and social services. 

The $30 million package, which failed to pass during two previous special sessions and the regular session, is supported with federal assistance dollars tied to the pandemic. 

“Third time’s the charm,” said Sen. Jim Abeler (R-Anoka). He has led the fight in the Senate to obtain the funding. 

Walz quickly signed the legislation, after the special session. “The people most impacted by COVID-19 have been our most vulnerable populations — directing this funding to disability service providers will help ensure we don’t leave anyone behind,” Walz said. “This bill will provide direct support to ensure Minnesotans with disabilities and older Minnesotans continue to receive critical services amid COVID-19.” 

But around the state, some of the day services providers are already closing their doors. In rural areas where there aren’t a lot of options for people with disabilities to find meaningful work and social activities, the closings hit especially hard. 

Those day service and employment providers say they were simply unable any longer to wait for state aid. Many had already laid off staff, but had to continue to maintain facilities and bare-bones operations. 

One nonprofit that closed its doors is LeSueur County Developmental Services (LCDS). Based in Waterville, the private nonprofit provided light manufacturing, office and janitorial services and operated Potential unlimited. The shutdown puts about 20 employees and 50 clients out of work. 

Executive Director Doug Scharfe worked at LCDS for 17 years, and has 37 years’ experience in the disability services field. He and others now have the difficult task of selling assets and handling closing details. A closing sale was held in July. 

Closing the doors when the pandemic began brought great uncertainty for LCDS, its staff and clients. “I’m not sure where our clients are going to go,” Scharfe said. There isn’t another day program in the area. “That’s the hardest part. What are people going to do?” 

The Waterville and LeSueur County communities have been very supportive of LCDS, Scharfe said. The nonprofit began in 1966. “It’s a sad time for the community.” 

Other programs have met a similar fate. In July Kandi Works Development and Activities Center in Kandiyohi shut down. By mid- August, its website was taken down. 

Harlan Madsen, chairman of the nonprofit’s board of directors, told KSTP-TV that the board voted to dissolve the nonprofit. 

“We feel, and felt, very strongly after intensive conversations as a board that it is irresponsible of us to continue to use our resources and reserves and just simply burn them up,” Madsen said. “It is a very gut-wrenching decision.” 

The provider shutdowns have affected more than 300 day services programs, with about 6,000 clients total. 

Advocates argued that the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) should have filed for retainer payments with the centers for Medicare and Medicaid, as other states had done. They and leaders of disability service organizations also argued that the nonprofits should be allowed increased flexibility to open for longer hours and greater capacity. One point providers made is that they have proper safety protocols in place, to not spread COVID-19. 

Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead contended that Minnesota didn’t have the power to obtain funding, and that it was up to state lawmakers to pass legislation to do so. Walz has been operating state government under formal declarations of emergency since the spring. 

In July DHS began allowing providers to open for some employment and social activities, under new guidelines. Providers had to have a COVID-19 preparedness plan in place and to follow other state licensing requirements related to hours and capacity. People who have, or who live with someone, with COVID-19 or who have had exposure within two weeks cannot attend programs. 

“Recent decreases in COVID-19 cases in group homes across the state, as well as Minnesota Department of Health guidance, helped us decide that this is the right time to reopen services for all,” said Harpstead.