More than 1,000 people participated in a virtual statewide rally Wednesday calling on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to reconsider budget cuts for services for people living with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The New York State Office for People with Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) faces nearly half a billion dollars in funding cuts and other withholdings amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to the statewide coalition New York Disability Advocates. Several rally speakers also said the cuts are just the latest offense following a decade of chronic underfunding.
“We are asking the governor to reconsider the cuts to our programs, to our providers, and ultimately, to our loved ones,” said New York State Assemblywoman Melissa Miller of Long Island, who is the mother of a 21-year-old son with developmental disabilities. “It makes me so sad and frustrated that we need to do this year after year. Every year, it’s a question of, ‘What are they gonna cut?’”
OPWDD was hit by the across-the-board 20% withholding in state reimbursements Cuomo enacted earlier in the pandemic because of federal cuts, but the office also faces a proposed 5% budget cut for 2022. An additional $238 million in annualized cuts to residential rates went into effect on Oct. 1 and is expected to result in the loss of 1,200 beds in group homes and other residential facilities, according to a recent survey conducted by New York Disability Advocates.
The coalition also estimates that provider organizations supporting people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) have lost $2.6 billion over the past 10 years due to Medicaid funding cuts.
“We have gone from benign neglect to active abandonment and, in some cases, actual attacks because of the cuts that have been forced upon us by the governor,” said New York State Assemblymember Thomas Abinanti of Westchester County, who, like Miller, is also the parent of a child living with I/DD.
In addition to several elected officials, Wednesday’s speakers included dozens of self-advocates living with I/DD, family caregivers and direct service providers. Many of them characterized the situation for people living with I/DD in New York State even more bluntly than Abinanti.
“We’ve reached the breaking point,” said a mother named Maryann Virga. “This is a human rights catastrophe.”
Another speaker who lives in a group home broke into tears in a pre-recorded video when she explained how poor pay and budget cuts have led to high staff turnover at her facility. “Please increase this budget [for OPWDD] because we need this money. Because if you don’t, we’re gonna lose more and more staff, and it breaks my heart to lose more staff.”
The budget cuts have also prompted fears of a return to the era of overcrowded and understaffed mental institutions like Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, which operated from 1947-1987 and where dismal conditions led to widespread abuse, neglect, disease and inhumane medical experimentation.
“History is repeating itself,” said Terry Manzione, president of the Long Island Advocacy Network for the Developmentally Disabled. “We are witnessing a slow erosion of funds and an accumulation of complacency the likes of which our society saw before the atrocities of Willowbrook and other institutions came to be.”
An OPWDD spokesperson told Rockland/Westchester Journal News in September that the office did “not anticipate any changes to services as a result of actions taken by OPWDD to protect those services, implement budgeted savings goals, and target any reductions to ‘non-service delivery’ areas.” Press Officer for the New York State Division of the Budget Freeman Klopott also provided the following written statement to WBFO:
“In the absence of federal aid, we must consider spending reductions, borrowing, and revenue actions to offset the state’s four-year, nearly $63 billion revenue loss. Any permanent spending reductions will be made in discussion with the legislature, keeping in mind that any area we don’t reduce spending will require deeper reductions in another.”
Still, the urgent warnings expressed by many speakers Wednesday underscored the title of the rally: SOS—Save Our Services.
“Fund the programs and the services that keep our loved ones happy, safe and [as] independent as possible,” said Miller, summarizing the participants’ demands, which are also outlined in a Change.org petition.
“Make us a priority for once.”
UPDATED Dec. 10 @ 12:19 p.m.: This article was updated to include a statement from the New York State Division of the Budget.