Developmental disability service providers in Missouri are celebrating record state investments and the governor's encouragement.
Gov. Mike Parson has thrown support behind funding for the Department of Mental Health in the past two years. In response, the Missouri Association of Rehabilitation Facilities, a public policy advocacy group representing more than 100 providers serving people with disabilities, recognized the Republican governor with its Leadership Award on Tuesday.
MARF Executive Director Erika Leonard said she chose Parson for the award because he championed historic investments in developmental disability services.
By including the state's network of community developmental disability service providers in his executive budget for the past two years, Leonard said Parson "stopped the cycle of leaving us behind."
"He is truly deserving of all the honor from this organization," she said.
Parson said the state needs to support its agencies doing tough jobs most people don't want to, and that he tries to be a partner in those efforts.
Taking lead from the governor's proposed budget, the Missouri Legislature appropriated a record $955 million to improve the quality of care provided by developmental disability services, including behavioral health services, home- and community-based services and nursing facilities.
Lawmakers also designated $28.5 million for the 988 Crisis Hotline, $148 million for community behavioral health provider capital improvements, $6 million for a new division of youth services treatment center, $12.8 million for substance use response and treatment, $5.8 million for Missouri Autism Centers, $7.6 million to reduce patient ratios for case managers, $50 million to provide in-home support for individuals with developmental disabilities, and $42 million to expand service and eligibility to individuals utilizing home- and community-based services.
Parson also approved provider rates to ensure frontline workers are paid a minimum of $15 per hour, Leonard said.
And that's just the foundation, Parson said.
"I'm not a one-and-done governor," he told MARF members Tuesday. "Next year will be a good year for all of you to be able to expand and for us to do better."
More work is necessary, Leonard said, because providers are struggling to attract and retain qualified employees.
"The workforce crisis continues," she said. "We're not done. We have a lot more work to do in order to make sure we always have quality, compassionate, good people serving individuals with disabilities all across our state."
Providers who contract with the Missouri Department of Mental Health can use state funds to pay frontline workers more.
One of those contractors is Day Solutions, located at 210 El Mercado Plaza in Jefferson City. It's an independently owned and operated day program for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Executive Director Danielle Schwartz said the state funding will help her hire and keep well-qualified employees.
It's a huge need, she said, especially over the past few years.
"Finding employees that are willing to work for the pay that we've been able to provide has been a challenge and that increased funding for our clients and the staff that works so diligently is life-changing, not only to our businesses but our clients," Schwartz said.
The primary offering at Day Solutions is Day Habilitation, which focuses on assisting clients to acquire, improve and retain self-help, socialization and adaptive skills, according to its website.
With the budget increases last year, Schwartz said she was able to fill 90 percent of her nearly 30-person staff. That leaves about three positions vacant, she said.
Schwartz said retaining the staff is crucial not only from a business perspective but for clients as well.
"It takes awhile to develop a report with clients with special needs," she explained. "Many of them have had bad experiences in their past and learning to trust and to be comfortable working with a staff member takes a little bit. ... That relationship can be life-changing for the clients."
Day programs are often the most social interaction clients get in a day, Schwartz said.
"To have staff that are engaged and committed to the program is significant," she added.
Schwartz said she appreciates the governor's support and understanding of how hard direct care staff work.
Instead of presenting Parson a physical award, Leonard said MARF is donating about $250 to Friends of the Missouri Governor's Mansion, an organization dedicated to the preservation and stewardship of the mansion.
Parson thanked MARF members for staying the course through unprecedented challenges over the past few years, including the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The one thing you learn is life goes on. Challenges go on. People with needs still have needs," he said. "That didn't stop."
Parson, who has a great-niece who has autism, said he decided the state needs to take better care of its vulnerable populations when he became governor.
"The state has to do their part to compete," he said. "For years, I think, at the state level we thought so many times that 'How do we get a deal? How do we get the most out of somebody with the least amount of expenses?' But in the real world today, you can't do that."