Nonprofit service providers left out of Lamont's group home deal call it an injustice

Photo of Julia Bergman

The nonprofit community agencies that contract with the state to provide a wide array of social services were quick to applaud nearly $200 million in new funding for nonprofits in the two-year state budget approved last week — a meaningful plus-up that providers said would help address their longtime quest for increased state support.

That helped some of them, including workers at group homes for people with intellectual disabilities, who came within a day of striking earlier this month. But it leaves many agencies, and workers, out.

On Monday, a day before the state Senate and two days before the House were set to make the budget final, the Connecticut Community Nonprofit Alliance decried that the budget does not include increases for Medicaid funded mental health and addiction programs in the state.

“We are extremely grateful for the increases provided in the budget for other sectors of the nonprofit community and it’s our hope that this is an oversight, a mistake rather than a choice,” Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the Alliance, said during an online news conference Monday.

The budget includes Medicaid increases for private nonprofits across the board, but much of that money was diverted to settle strike actions earlier this month with the group home workers. Other workers in the same sector sustained the same extraordinary pressures in the pandemic, executives in the business said.

The Lamont administration, as the major payer through the state-federal Medicaid system, helped broker the $184-million, two-year deal to provide wage increases and enhanced benefits to the group home workers.

Casa indicated it wasn’t until the final budget language came out that his group realized mental health and substance abuse providers would not be getting an increase. The Alliance says an additional $75 million in funding is needed over the next two years to provide increases for these providers.

Lawmakers are expected to approve about $25 million over the biennium for these services, mostly mental health, through passage of the so-called budget implementer bill this week, Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, said by phone Monday.

But Casa said Monday that it’s not yet clear how that federal funding will be distributed.

“Our hope is that it will go out in proportion to all the nonprofits to address their needs,” he said.

Heather Gates, president and CEO of Community Health Resources, one of Connecticut’s largest behavioral health, housing, foster care and methadone providers, said at Monday’s news conference that while group home workers certainly deserve raises — “no question about that” — so does her staff.

“How do leaders make a decision to shortchange mental health and substance use treatment providers following the toughest year we’ve ever experienced going into a year where we know demand will be high and funding cuts over the last decade have kept us on the edge of disaster,” she said.

Without a Medicaid increase, Gary Steck, CEO of Wellmore Behavioral Health, said the organization, which is based in Waterbury but serves 40-plus towns, can’t afford to boost pay for its staff, who also spent the past 15 months on front lines of the pandemic.

Steck called on lawmakers “correct this injustice and put the resources where necessary.”

This is happening as substance abuse is on the rise and more people are seeking out mental health services.

Luis Perez, president and CEO of Mental Health Connecticut, said at the national level the organization is screening about 50 percent more people than average and the severity of the cases has also increased. That’s consistent with what Perez is seeing here in Connecticut, he said.

Connecticut also saw a jump in opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020. Perez said the rise of substance abuse also applies to alcohol and other illicit drugs — “people are self-medicating.”

“For those programs, the lack of funding increase may be devastating,” Casa said. “It’ll jeopardize patients access to programs across Connecticut.”