Opinion: Let’s invest in Georgians with disabilities

Right now, more than 7,000 Georgians are on a waiting list for services. They have been found pre-eligible for services that help them live in their communities, services like access to community activities, assistance obtaining and maintaining employment and respite care.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Waivers that provide these services are what the 7,000-plus people are waiting for. And unless a person is in truly desperate circumstances, it’s years of waiting. One of the members of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities was relieved when her daughter recently received a waiver after 13 years.

What do individuals do, during those years? Sometimes they sit on the couch. Other times a parent or relative quits their job to support their loved one, which deprives Georgia’s economy of valuable workers and hurts the family financially. Sometimes a person and their family will scrape together funds to receive some services, or they will receive limited funding for limited services. In the worst of cases, people are sent out of state for short-term crisis services, get into trouble with the law, or become the victims of violence.

Having a waiver for everyone who needs one, and making sure high quality services are provided under those waivers, is a powerful way to support good lives and good outcomes.

Of course, in order for someone to provide quality services, we have to compensate them. The state’s reimbursement rate for service providers is based on paying direct support professionals a wage of $10.63 an hour. Some service providers have shifted funds around, often leaving non-direct support positions unfilled, so that they can boost wages to $15 or $16 an hour. It remains a struggle to find and keep staff, even the staff who want to stay. Which means that even once Georgians with disabilities are approved to receive waivers, it is hard to find staff to provide services.

We believe this is a critical moment for our state to invest in Georgians with disabilities, their families and the professionals who support them. From a national perspective, Georgia has historically invested a relatively low amount into adult developmental disability services, lagging well behind the national average and behind most of our neighboring states in the Southeast.

But if we all pitch in, a modest amount will make a world of difference. To give a kitchen table example – an annual $25 per Georgia taxpayer would fund approximately 5,500 waivers. When we talk to friends and neighbors about this, we find they are willing, even eager, to make this type of modest financial sacrifice to support people with the most significant impact of their disabilities. We have found this to be true in rural and urban settings, with Republicans and Democrats alike. Which makes sense, because disability is an inherently bipartisan issue.

The good news is that Georgia has begun to trend in a positive direction. Last year, 513 new waivers were funded in the state budget. A bipartisan Senate study committee led by senators Sally Harrell and John Albers produced a thoughtful list of recommendations, including a recommendation to increase direct support professional wages, fund 2,400 new waivers and create an Intellectual and Developmental Disability Commission. We are starting to hear more widespread agreement that everyone who is eligible for a waiver needs to have one, and that direct support professionals need to be paid wages that they can live on.

We find great hope in this progress. We are excited to continue this work with Gov. Brian Kemp and the members of the General Assembly to invest in Georgians with developmental disabilities and their families.

Nick Perry is a disability inclusion strategy manager at Boeing Co. and chair of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities. Dave Wilber is the executive director of Diversified Enterprises in Tifton, and president of Georgia’s Service Providers Association for Developmental Disabilities.