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Colorado leads for people with developmental disabilities during crisis


Everyone is feeling the impacts of the COVID pandemic, and we likely will for some time to come. Yet even in crisis, leadership emerges, and Colorado has emerged as a leader in ways that most people do not realize.

Colorado has been a national leader in its response for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and the agencies that support them. At the onset of the crisis, our Department of Health Care Policy and Financing immediately sought federal approval to provide supports remotely and authorized retainer payments for services that could not be delivered safely. In partnership with the Department of Public Health and Environment, they ensured that providers had access to the resources we needed to continue providing essential services. Gov. Jared Polis included disability providers as critical businesses so that daily supports could continue during the stay-at-home order and made sure that hospital crisis plans do not discriminate against people with disabilities. This effective mobilization of state government has resulted in thousands of workers keeping their jobs and continuity of support for people with IDD. It has probably saved lives.

Other states have not fared so well. Across the nation, many agencies are closing services, furloughing and laying off employees, or shuttering their doors altogether. Because disability providers rely almost entirely on government funding, they are disproportionately impacted when they can’t deliver services and often lack reserve funding to stay afloat beyond a few weeks in an emergency. In states that didn’t act quickly, the service networks that support people with IDD are crumbling.

Disability providers are keenly aware that our budgetary woes are likely to outlast the state of emergency. Even in Colorado, there are still holes to be filled, as agencies offer enhanced pay to caregivers and float services for which retainer payments are not available. If we must face significant reimbursement cuts in the coming years, continuing to provide supports will become impossible.

Federal funding targeted to disability providers is urgently needed to ensure that we can continue to be here for the people who rely on us for their most basic daily needs. We applaud Polis, Sen. Cory Gardner and Sen. Michael Bennet for co-authoring a letter to Senate leadership advocating for more funding for community service providers. We hope that our senators will help hold Health and Human Services accountable for dispensing federal emergency dollars directly to Medicaid providers, and replenish federal funding for this purpose in the fourth COVID package. We also hope that HHS and the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services will recognize the need for prolonged flexibilities to allow states to gradually adapt to what is likely to be the “new normal” in service delivery.

As we come to understand our new reality, state and federal policymakers should look to Colorado as an example of how to work with stakeholders to meet the needs of people with IDD. In times of emergency, it is up to all of us to make sure that our neighbors are supported.

Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections Inc.

Tara Kiene