Shifting services to community can make state’s human services better

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With the state of Connecticut facing a $1.5 billion budget shortfall and the possibility of hundreds of millions in spending cuts, the alliance of community-based nonprofit agencies has proposed a budget solution: The conversion to the nonprofit sector of more expensive state human service programs for mental health, substance-abuse treatment and for individuals with developmental disabilities.

We estimate the state could save about $1.3 billion over five years by shifting those programs into the private sector, where the bulk of the state’s human service programs are already being provided.

This isn’t a new concept. In fact, Connecticut’s dual system of providing services in the community and through state-run programs is unlike most states, where all services are provided in the community and the state serves as regulator.

The proposal makes both economic and practical sense.

For lawmakers looking for ways to balance the state budget, conversion could avert devastating cuts that would certainly shut down programs and reduce the numbers of people who can receive services. With savings, the state can reinvest in the community system to hopefully serve more of our family members and neighbors.

Most important, we know that the delivery of human service programs through community-based providers works. Across the state, half a million people use community-based programs every year. And there is a well-accepted, decades-old belief that services delivered in the community are better for the individuals served and for the community as a whole.

Some object, saying the quality of care will suffer if shifted from state to community providers. The statistics and experience don’t bear that out. A study conducted by the General Assembly found that services in the community actually had fewer complaints filed against them than state-provided services. And where individuals have been moved from state-run programs into the community, we know of none who have asked to go back.

It is true that the lower wages paid in the private sector make those workplaces less stable. Workers in private agencies make about 40 percent less than those in state agencies, and staff turnover at community-based agencies can be higher than at the state level.

But there’s an answer: reinvest savings into the system and provide better pay for the private sector. The math shows the state can still save money by converting services to the private sector and raising reimbursement rates.

Community-based employers have a long history of advocating for more funding to increase the pay of their workforce and to expand services for people in need. Every single year, members of our alliance are at the state Capitol talking to the governor and to legislators to do just that.

The huge state deficit means there is a stark choice ahead for legislators: Preserve an antiquated system and balance the budget with brutal spending cuts that eliminate services for thousands of the state’s most vulnerable individuals. Or take the opportunity to update and modernize the state’s delivery of services in a way that maximizes dollars and provides the vital care that some families have waited for years to get.

We are already providing quality care in the community. Let’s take a system that works and make it work better and for more people.

Andrea Ferrucci is executive director of Mosaic, an agency that assists people with intellectual disabilities.

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