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Chris Stevenson: Direct Support Professionals are crucial to caring for those with disabilities

Some people are born natural caregivers; nurturing, patient, and attentive. These qualities cannot be learned but are necessary for important roles in providing support to the most vulnerable members of our communities. Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) are not only natural caregivers but also have an astounding passion for the people they support.

DSPs are trained professionals who work with Kentuckians with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Their average day varies, but their main goal is to maintain the health, safety, and well-being of the individuals they serve. The work they do is imperative to helping members of our community with intellectual and developmental disabilities perform daily activities that may be otherwise impossible.

As the President and CEO of Cedar Lake, I have seen firsthand the important role DSPs play in the lives of thousands of individuals with disabilities in our state. Sadly, despite their important role in the workforce, DSPs are severely underpaid and overworked. For providers, such as Cedar Lake, increased expenses through inflation and wage increases have not been met with an increase in funding, resulting in stagnant or reduced pay and increased turnover rates in the profession.

Because the Supports for Community Living waiver has not seen rate increases in 14 years, the compensation and benefits packages offered to DSPs has continued to deteriorate. With average pay around nine dollars per hour, many professional caretakers must work two or three jobs or are forced to give up their passions in search for work in other fields that will pay the bills.

As a result, turnover rates have skyrocketed up to 70%, putting additional strain on the Medicaid budget to reimburse providers for turnover costs. As a matter of fact, it costs approximately $3,500 to replace a DSP. In 2015, that resulted in a total of $12,000,000 from Kentucky Medicaid to pay for turnover.  This money could easily be spent retaining DSPs in their critically-needed roles.  Just ask the loved ones of a person with an intellectual disability who continue to worry day after day, “who will care for my son or daughter when I’m gone?”  

Turnover and lack of benefits have a direct impact on Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens who are served by DSP’s. The shortage in funding has significantly hurt the quality of support services. Not only is the makeup of the workforce losing eager staff, it is also losing experience. Currently, 62% of DSPs have less than one year of experience because of the nonexistent financial incentives to remain in the field.

We need action now to prevent immediate risks to citizens with disabilities in our community. Failure to increase the budget in 2018 will drive more and more DSPs out of the field, resulting in a lack of or very limited support services to our most vulnerable citizens.

The reality is that a small funding increase in the Biennial Budget will go a long way. These rates are the same as they were in 2004, 14 years ago, while the cost of living has increased over 27% in that same period of time. A 25% increase to the SCL Medicaid waiver rates will have minimal effects on the state’s overall budget but will have tremendous impacts on the quality of care we are able to give to Kentuckians with disabilities.

The facts are simple, limiting funding means limited care for individuals with disabilities. Without an increase in SCL waiver rates, thousands of our friends, family members, and neighbors risk being displaced or re-institutionalized. Our lawmakers must understand and properly reward the important role DSPs play in helping Kentuckians with disabilities reach their full potential.

Chris Stevenson is president and CEO of Cedar Lake Inc. Cedar Lake is a nonprofit agency based in Louisville that provides residential healthcare and rehabilitation services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Cedar Lake residences are funded by the SCL waiver and work to provide the highest quality of services to the people they serve.

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