For Immediate Release
CONTACT: Peter Clark, 512-417-9262
AUSTIN – Two new developments signal that underfunded services for Texas children with disabilities are in trouble, as Easter Seals of East Texas recently notified the state that it will withdraw from the state’s Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) program over the summer and a new survey of ECI providers reveals that a majority of community organizations in the program are considering withdrawing due to financial pressures. ECI is the state program providing therapies to children under age three with autism, speech delays, Down syndrome, and other disabilities and developmental delays. The news comes as Texas House and Senate negotiators prepare to meet in a conference committee to write the final version of the new state budget for an up-or-down vote before the end of the legislative session.
“This is a wake-up call for state legislators,” said Stephanie Rubin, CEO of Texans Care for Children. “If they shortchange these services in the new state budget, children all across the state may miss out on therapies that help them learn to walk, communicate with their families, get ready for school, and meet other goals.”
The ECI Brazos Valley Program run by Easter Seals East Texas just announced they will continue to serve children in their eight-county area until August 31, 2017. The eight counties are Brazos, Burleson, Grimes, Leon, Madison, Robertson, Walker and Washington. The Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) is expected to seek a new ECI contractor for the region.
A November report by Texans Care for Children found that three other community organizations withdrew from the program last year amid reduced state funding. While HHSC eventually found contractors to replace them, children experienced a disruption in services, particularly in the Tyler area where there was a several-month gap between the withdrawal of the contractor and the start of a new one.
In a follow-up to that report, Texans Care for Children recently surveyed the 46 ECI contractors throughout the state. A stunning 54 percent of contractors reported the “program leadership [has] seriously discussed the possibility of not renewing its ECI contract.”
ECI has proven to be highly effective for children, but community organizations in the program are under financial pressure due to three different state policy decisions:
- In 2016, HHSC implemented Medicaid reimbursement rate cuts for children’s therapy as mandated by the Legislature in 2015. Those cuts have undermined ECI providers, who serve children enrolled in Medicaid as well as children enrolled in private insurance. The cuts have also hurt private health agencies that serve children of all ages with disabilities. The Texas House has made the issue a high priority this session, including a significant restoration of the funding in the recently passed budget bill, in part through an amendment passed during the budget debate. The budget passed by the Texas Senate, on the other hand, fails to include any funding to restore children’s therapy rates, setting up the issue as one of the major points of contention in the House-Senate budget conference committee.
- As documented in the 2016 report by Texans Care for Children, state appropriations for ECI declined 11 percent from Fiscal Year 2010 to Fiscal Year 2017. The budget bills recently passed by the House and Senate fail to include a $19 million request by HHSC to partially cover expected enrollment growth in the program. An amendment passed during the House floor debate would provide that funding contingent on the availability of unexpended balances in the state’s IDEA Part C fund.
- Although staff at HHSC has worked hard to support ECI, the agency has not been able to meet contractors’ needs for additional mid-year funding to cover higher enrollment than anticipated. Under Part C of IDEA, all eligible babies and toddlers with disabilities or delays are entitled to receive the full array of ECI services they need. Community organizations contract with HHSC to serve a set number of children, based on projections. However, if more children need services than anticipated, community providers are still required in their state contracts to serve those children. In the past, HHSC could provide sufficient additional funds to community agencies serving higher-than-expected numbers of children, but insufficient state appropriations constrains HHSC’s ability to provide this critical mid-year funding to community ECI agencies. According to the new Texans Care for Children survey, to meet the state’s obligation 54 percent of Texas ECI providers served more children than they were contracted to serve during Fiscal Year 2016. To cover those losses, ECI community organizations have turned to local fundraising, which takes staff time away from helping children.