by Jane McClure
Minnesota has lost at least eight disability service providers and could lose more if providers don’t receive help from the state. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to present great difficulties for the providers, a Minnesota Senate committee was told.
The message from disability service providers, client and clients’ families? The loss of their programs is sending fear through Minnesota communities, as people with disabilities and their families struggle with loss of work and income, isolation and loss of skills.
But with tight state budgets it’s unclear how much state lawmakers can help. “This is happening at the most challenging of times,” said Sen Jim Abeler, R-Anoka. “I don’t think the state budget picture is going to get any rosier.”
The Senate committee will be looking at the issues and continue to talk to service providers and state officials about what can be done.
Speakers outlined the recent challenges and the uncertain future ahead for the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee January 14. They described the difficulty of making decisions to shut down, and trying to balance community needs with a significant health crisis
Providers are currently running at 50 percent capacity, and following many health-related protocols to keep clients and staff safe. Not every program operation has been able to return during the slow weeks and months of reopening. Some people with disabilities continue to stay at home, as they and their family members worry about becoming ill.
The pandemic forced services providers around Minnesota to shut down in the spring. Some services were and still are offered remotely but that wasn’t an option for everything and everyone. Natasha Merz, director of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) Disability Services Division, said state officials heard “loud and clear” that remote services didn’t have the same impact as being in-person.
Merz pointed out that day services for people with disabilities can be provided in different ways, in the community or in DHS-licensed facilities. It’s very common for people with disabilities to have a mix of both types of services.
Before providers could open their doors again, COVID-19 preparation plans, plans for sanitation and safe practices, and limits on participation were among measures that had to be put into place. Despite such precautions not every service provider has been able to reopen. Eight have closed and others are on the brink. Clients who live in areas where services are no longer available have to travel farther or stay home.
Julie Johnson, president of the MOHR organization and leader of St. Paul-based MSS, and Brenda Geldert, executive director of Options, inc. in Big Lake, outlined the dilemma.
Johnson emphasized that providers are only reimbursed for the services they provide. With cutbacks and shutdowns, providers are unable to cover fixed costs. While state assistance thus far is appreciated providers are still operating at deficits.
“the past year has been extremely difficult,” said Geldert. “The bottom line is we need more financial help to make it through the end of the pandemic.’
Options Inc. has lost $1.9 million since April, and anticipates an ongoing loss of $66,000 per month due to reattracted operations. The provider has received about $200,000 so far in help, but that doesn’t begin to make up lost revenues.
Johnson said most programs are operating at 44 percent of pre-pandemic revenue.
At least one shuttered provider has been replaced. Productive Alternatives has been adding services in grant County, to replace the Grant County Day Activity Center (DAC). The Grant County program, which was based in Hoffman, closed in March 2020.
“They are very excited that we’re coming and excited for the new opportunities,” Mike Burke, director of operations for Fergus Falls- based Productive Alternatives, told MOHR. His nonprofit will lease space from the Grant County DAC in Hoffman, to offer day services, employment support services and connect participants to offerings from Minnesota Vocational Rehabilitation. People with disabilities living in Pope County are also eligible. Licensed capacity will be for 100 participants.
Roughly two-thirds of the Grant County DAC staff have been hired by Production Alternatives to resume services. Burke said most bring 20-plus years of client service experience with them.