Home > Uncategorized > ‘Real Lives’ bill is now law, but it raises many questions

‘Real Lives’ bill is now law, but it raises many questions

The ‘Real Lives’ bill is now law, and it is somewhat better than the vehicle it was in danger of becoming for the financial benefit of corporate providers to the Department of Developmental Services.

But what has come out of the legislative process late last month is a compromise between two competing bill drafts, even the better of which raised some serious questions.   The final compromise was apparently negotiated among key lawmakers in the House and Senate, with the input of a major provider-based organization, the Arc of Massachusetts.

The legislation introduces what is called “person-centered planning” in providing care and services to persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  It is touted as providing individuals with more choice and “self determination” in the services they receive from the Department of Developmental Services.

One of the main thrusts of the new law is to provide developmentally disabled persons with control over their own “individual budgets” to pay for DDS services.  The introduction of individual budgets is billed as a key departure from the current system in which DDS controls the budget process in contracting with corporate providers to operate group homes and provide other services.

But we think the development of these individual budgets is actually where this legislation runs into problems.  Many, if not most, developmentally disabled people are not in a position to manage complex budgets involving state and sometimes federal funds or to make informed decisions about their own needs and services.  As a result, the law provides that they can engage a “chosen planning team,” “financial management services,” and “independent facilitators” to help them do those things. These entities, some of which will be privately operated, yet state-funded, will work with each individual’s clinical care team to make those planning and financial decisions.

There are two major drawbacks to this approach.  One is that the independent facilitators and financial managers will constitute a new layer of bureaucracy, which will mean higher costs to taxpayers as well as a managerial nightmare for DDS.

Who will actually determine, for instance, what a program participant’s individual budget actually is?   The law states that DDS “shall negotiate with the financial management service provider uniform rates for each given unit of service, to be paid by each participant from the participant’s individual budget” (my emphasis).

Does this mean DDS is required to enter into negotiations with an undetermined number of private financial management services on behalf of thousands of individual clients?

Related to this is the question whether DDS actually knows what an individual’s total cost of care is, and whether the Department currently calculates that total cost.  In the community-based system, these costs are spread over a number of budgets, including the DDS and MassHealth budgets.  The Department’s contracts with group homes are based on only a portion of these costs, which are not necessarily specific to the individual residents.

In that respect, we think the Real Lives legislation would make more sense if it involved giving an individual and his or her guardian more authority simply to plan their services, and stopped there.  There is no good reason that we can see to also give a program participant authority to manage and disburse state and federal money.  That should remain a DDS function.  Giving a developmentally disabled individual control over the disbursement of such funding could potentially open them up to financial exploitation.  But the new law appears to give those disabled individuals that authority with the following language:

“…with self-determination,  the participant has control over the annual budget, the participant is central to and directs the decision-making process and determines what supports are utilized and the service system is flexible, so the participant may tailor the participant’s supports to meet the participant’s needs…” (my emphasis).

The second major drawback in the Real Lives approach is related to the first.   The law appears to leave the individual’s guardian almost out of the picture.  The “participant” in the program is defined in the legislation as “an individual with disabilities receiving department services and, when appropriate, an individual’s parents, legal guardian, conservator or other authorized representative…” (my emphasis).

As we asked Senator Michael Barrett’s staff, when we were sent his version of the then bill for comments last January, who will determine when it is appropriate to allow an individual’s guardian or family to participate in their ward’s person-centered planning and self-determination program?  We noted that the vague language in the bill could leave incapacitated individuals even more vulnerable to financial exploitation by persons other than their guardians or family members who seek to make decisions about their care or financial affairs.

We recommended that a statement be added in the bill making it explicit that in a case in which an individual has a legal guardian, the guardian would be considered the participant in the self-determination program.  While Barrett’s office did produce a thoughtful redraft of the very flawed original version of the bill, our suggested language ensuring participation of guardians was not inserted.

The law does potentially give the guardian a consulting role in the development of his or her ward’s individual budget, but that role appears to be an indirect one that is based on a reference to the individual’s care plan or Individual Support Plan (ISP).  In contrast is the much more central decision-making role that is given to the developmentally disabled individual himself or herself.

So, the upshot seems to be that while the law gives a central decision-making role to the disabled individual and possibly his or her financial management service, the individual’s guardian will have direct input only in cases in which someone, who is not specified, determines it is appropriate for the guardian to be involved.  Otherwise, the guardian has, at most, a consulting role to DDS.  This is very troubling to us.

Also, we had suggested that a statement be added to the definition of “self-determination” that participants and their guardians would be given an explicit choice among all available options for care, including state-operated facilities and group homes, provider-operated homes, shared living arrangements, and home-based care.  That statement was never added either.

As we have pointed out in a number of posts, both state and federal law provide that developmentally disabled persons seeking services are entitled to a choice of all available types of care, including state-run and institutional care.  But DDS routinely denies this choice to applicants for services, and presents provider-operated residential care as their only option.

Another serious problem with the Real Lives law is that the final compromise removed language from Barrett’s version which would have helped ensure that an advisory board created under the legislation is not dominated by corporate providers.  We are glad to see, though, that an unwarranted “contingency fund” for the providers was taken out of the bill.

In the final analysis, we think clients, their guardians, and families should have choice over the services they receive, but they should not have to manage state-funded budgets to pay for them.  State and local governments fund public school systems in the state, for instance. People have the choice of traditional public or charter schools, but families are not provided with pots of state and local funds from which they then pay the schools via private financial managers.

Service choice is already available to developmentally disabled persons through the ISP process, but it is less robust than it could be.  As noted, there is no real opportunity provided to most developmentally disabled people under the current system or under the Real Lives legislation to choose the state-run care option.  At the very least, the Real Lives law should be amended to correct that situation and to make the guardian’s role explicit in person-centered planning.

We hope these changes are made to the new law in the next legislative session.

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