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Disability services funding boost isn’t full fix, gives hope

June 28, 2021 GMT

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota is setting aside an unprecedented amount of money for residents with developmental challenges this year, but those who work in the field say it still might not be enough to stem high staff turnover rates and lengthy waitlists for those who need services.

Statewide, more than 5,000 South Dakotans have some form of developmental disability, such as autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy or Down syndrome. The state’s Department of Human Services has allocated an additional $28 million to agencies that provide housing and daily support services to those who can’t always care for themselves.

The additional funding is a 14% increase, bringing the annual allocation for community service providers to more than $200 million for the 2022 fiscal year, which starts Thursday.

Officials with community support providers say the additional funding will allow their organizations to raise wages to stabilize high turnover rates that have led to hundreds of South Dakotans who are waiting to be admitted to support programs.

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In Sioux Falls, LifeScape had more than 130 job vacancies this spring, for direct support professionals, case managers, nurses and teachers. That worker shortage meant the nonprofit couldn’t admit nearly 60 adults who needed varying levels of support.

“We have empty beds in homes and we know we have a waiting list,” LifeScape CEO Steve Watkins told the Argus Leader. “But if we brought somebody in, it would probably tip us over.”

Watkins said the high number of vacancies are due to a result of the high demands of the job, and the industry’s struggle to compete with the private sector. Both LifeScape and Black Hills Works are using the extra money to increase wages and make the jobs more appealing.

But industry experts say the size of this year’s funding boost shows just how far behind past Legislatures have been in keeping funding for community support providers in line with the true costs of providing services that the state is obligated to pay. From 2009 and 2021, these community support providers received an annual average increase of about 1.5%, far behind rises in inflation and the cost of living.

The Department of Human Services is now required to do rate modeling updates at least every five years to keep up. That work is going on this summer. Watkins and Sioux Falls Rep. Chris Karr are optimistic it will identify efficiencies for community service providers, find deficiencies in the rate model the state’s been using for more than a decade, and build on the increase made in this year’s budget.

“The state really got behind us this year and came up with a number that was just fantastic,” Watkins said. “It doesn’t solve the problem, but it certainly moves the needle and gives everybody hope.”