By Ret Boney
RALEIGH, N.C. — As mental-health reform comes under continued fire from advocates, and as the state cuts funding for human services, The Arc of North Carolina is proposing a plan to improve care for the state’s estimated 164,000 developmentally disabled residents.
The goal is to improve services to residents with disabilities like autism, brain injury and mental retardation, and reduce the waiting list for services that currently tops 4,300, all while lowering costs to the state, says Dave Richard, executive director of the Arc.
“We hope to create a dialog and then a movement to correct the problems surrounding the developmental disability service delivery system in the state,” he says.
That means moving away from a recovery-based model embedded within the mental-health system, to one that acknowledge that, while there is no cure for developmental disabilities, affected people can lead fuller and more independent lives in their own communities.
“We’re looking for a progressive attempt to focus on what we know will be successful for people with developmental disabilities,” Richard says. “We don’t want them pigeon-holed into a system designed for people with mental health issues.”
To date, Richard has held meetings in five cities around the state to present his plan, called “Life in the Community: A Roadmap for System Success,” and has several more in the works.
The Arc was established 50 years ago to provide services and advocate on behalf of North Carolinians with developmental disabilities.
Today, the group has more 39 chapters around the state, representing more than 5,000 members.
The group’s plan hinges on providing appropriate services at each life stage.
That means funding early-intervention services for children from birth to age three to help connect families with resources for services like diagnosis, treatment and educational options.
Families of preschoolers and school-aged children need services like after-school programs that can accommodate kids with disabilities, and community-based crisis care that minimizes time children have to spend away from their families.
Adults need similar crisis-care options, says Richard, along with additional funding for group homes and funding for services that help adults with developmental disabilities find and keep jobs.
This year, the Arc is focusing on three primary reforms.
First, the group is pushing for an additional 660 slots in a program that allows some people with developmental disabilities to receive services in their homes using Medicaid.
Richard says the change would cost the state an additional $10 million, but would bring an additional $20 million in federal funding to the state.
The group also is recommending the state double to $5 million its investment in respite services for families, an investment Richard says will lessen the need for more expensive services down the road.
And the Arc is pushing the state to spend $1.7 million to expand to all 100 counties from 33 the First in Families program, which provides nonprofits with money for one-time grants to families in crisis.
Implementation of the plan’s recommendations will bring about a system that is more responsive to participants, Richard says, and is more cost-effective in the long run than current options.
By providing appropriate services targeted to individuals’ specific needs, the state can reduce the overall financial impact of developmental disabilities.
“If we don’t treat problems early,” he says, “they go into crisis and the necessary services are much more expensive.”