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National disability provider crisis impacts local services

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending a statewide gathering of disability service providers where we explored the Colorado and national trends impacting the support of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live successfully in their communities. The theme was resounding: We need workers.

The national caregiver crisis isn’t recent news. We’ve seen this coming for decades and have been ringing the alarm bells. But according to national data, what was previously a crisis has risen to level red with the pandemic. It’s an emergency.

National data collected in 2021 revealed turnover rates of 43.3% and vacancy rates over 20% for the Direct Support Professionals who provide direct care for most people with disabilities who receive services. Turnover is disruptive enough. Beyond the learning curve of a complicated job, there is the trust and confidence broken every time a person with a disability must develop a new relationship with a new support professional with new approaches to care, new routines, and evolving levels of competence.

High levels of vacancy are even worse. When one out of five positions is unfilled for long periods of time, services suffer in quality, ratios become dangerous, and providers must make difficult decisions about whether they can continue providing services at all.

These outcomes are not theoretical. They are already happening. Ninety-two percent of providers self-report that they are struggling to meet quality standards. Eighty-three percent of providers are turning away new referrals, and 63% of providers have discontinued services (an increase of 85.3% from pre-pandemic reports).

The issues at the national level are reflected on a local level. Case managers in Southwest Colorado have been reporting provider capacity issues for years. Some services for people with disabilities are not available at all locally. Others are stretched beyond their maximum. People wait months or even years for a provider to become available.

Turnover levels locally are similarly shocking. At Community Connections, the largest provider of intellectual and developmental disability services in Southwest Colorado, our turnover rate of DSPs in 2019 was 28.4%. Our total for 2022 was 74.3%, and we are already at 37.5% through August 2023. The most consistent feedback we hear from people receiving or wanting services is that “we need DSPs.”

The problem is not the work. Most people find disability services a rewarding career that promotes personal and professional growth. The problem is that the rates states reimburse providers for the services they provide keep wages incredibly low. The same report that raised the alarms about turnover and vacancies revealed the source of the problem. National average wages for DSPs are at an abysmal $14.50.

Locally, wages are starting at $15.81, but the benefits are priceless. If you are looking for a way to make a huge difference in the lives of others, check out current DSP job openings at https://bit.ly/3Pumvxc.

Thanks to ANCOR for the eye-opening national statistics above as well as their continued advocacy for solutions to the DSP crisis and other gaps facing disability service providers.

Tara Kiene is president/CEO of Community Connections, Inc.