More State Money Sought to Aid the Disabled

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006

The General Assembly set aside an unprecedented amount of money two years ago for people with mental disabilities, enabling placements in group homes for those with cerebral palsy and other disorders and offering other services across the state. Many had been on waiting lists for years.

But in Fairfax County and elsewhere in Northern Virginia, one problem persists: The state consistently has underfunded many local agencies that provide the services, because the cost of doing business in the area is higher than in other parts of the state, resulting in providers' scaling back services.

Advocates for people with mental disabilities in Fairfax have started an aggressive push to increase state payments to the region, hoping to convince lawmakers during the 2007 legislative session that more money needs to be pumped to the Washington suburbs. Activists have appealed directly to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and to members of the General Assembly's committees that develop the state budget.

They also have invited Democrats and Republicans in Northern Virginia to meet individuals with disabilities as part of the ARC of Northern Virginia's A Life Like Yours program. Advocates hope that by spending time with those who have disabilities, public officials will better understand the needs of that community and be encouraged to take action.

In particular, advocates have reached out to Republican Fairfax Sens. Ken Cuccinelli II and James K. "Jay" O'Brien Jr. as well as Fairfax Dels. David B. Albo (R), Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R) and James M. Scott (D).

"It's never been anyone's number one priority. . . . No one ever makes it their pet project," said Nancy Mercer, executive director for the Falls Church-based ARC, referring to the difficulty that advocates have had in the past. "We're doing everything we can this year to change that."

Currently, Virginia's Medicaid program reimburses agencies that work with people with mental disabilities in rural Virginia for the same amount that it reimburses those within Fairfax. But the cost of doing business is often more than 20 percent higher in Northern Virginia, according to state audits. For instance, the state reimburses agencies that run group homes about $17 an hour per client, according to state records. The actual cost hovers around $41 an hour, making it difficult for facilities to provide complete services for those entitled to them.

The economics of such services also discourage agencies from setting up in Northern Virginia, an outcome that limits the choices for those seeking providers.

Advocates said they need $5.5 million a year to at least partially bridge the gap between the money from the state and their actual costs. They have asked Kaine to include the increases in his changes to the state budget.

They also have asked several lawmakers to submit budget amendments that could provide the money.

That money would be used primarily for increasing the salaries paid to those who work with patients with disabilities every day. In many cases, workers can't afford Northern Virginia's cost of living and do not stay with the work very long, advocates said.

Efforts to secure the money in the past have been stymied largely because of regional hostilities that plague Virginia politics. Very often, rural and downstate lawmakers are unwilling to make special concessions for Northern Virginia.

"It's going to be a tough sell," said Albo, who said he was considering a budget amendment to secure the funds. He said such requests often get caught up in negotiations over other issues with lawmakers in other regions.

"It's like everything else that we deal with in Northern Virginia, whether it's transportation or education. Some of the downstate guys say, 'Well if you guys want that, then . . . how about this for us?' It just makes it hard."

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