Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday (Dec. 14) announced a plan to address the lengthy services waiting list for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The controversial list was cited by those opposing a recently approved state income tax cut package pushed by the governor.
The governor signed the largest tax cut in Arkansas history into law on Dec. 9 following a three-day special session. The cuts reduce Arkansas’ top income tax rate from 5.9% to 5.5% next year and to 4.9% in the next four years if certain economic conditions are met. The measure included other tax reductions and tax credits, with the cuts when fully implemented reducing state revenues by $430 million. Arkansas has a surplus of more than $1 billion and has more than $1.2 billion in reserves.
Prior to the special session, some tax cut opponents, including legislators, said the state should instead focus on addressing citizen needs. One of those mentioned was a long-term waiting list for thousands of Arkansans and their families needing special medical attention for often severe mental and developmental disabilities.
Gov. Hutchinson said Tuesday there are 3,204 people on the list. Of those, 1,861 are Medicaid eligible, meaning they receive some level of service, but acknowledged that all have been waiting “way, way too long” for help. He said his administration has in recent years added 1,200 “slots” – openings to receive medical services managed by the Arkansas Department of Human Services – and is now seeking a federal waiver for 200 more slots funded with existing state revenue. The waiver request is made to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The second part of the plan is to seek $36.7 million from the Arkansas Legislature to fund slots that would address the waiting list by June 2025.
“That represents thousands of Arkansans. It gives them hope. It gives a specific plan as how to address this great need that we have to meet the needs of our most vulnerable citizens,” Gov. Hutchinson said.
Disability Rights Arkansas Executive Director Tom Masseau said he welcomes the plan and is eager to understand more about the plan’s sustainability.
“We’re encouraged by the Governor’s efforts to eliminate the waiting list and are glad that he has listened to the concerns of so many Arkansas families whose loved ones have been waiting to receive services, some for decades. We’re anxious to take a closer look at the funding to see how it can be made sustainable for individuals needing services going forward. We deeply appreciate the ongoing efforts of the Governor, Senator Ingram and Director Stone to ensure that Arkansans with intellectual and developmental disabilities receive services that will enable them to live independently in their own communities,” he noted in a statement to Talk Business & Politics.
To manage the inflow of patients if the waivers are approved, Melissa Stone, director of the Arkansas DHS Division of Developmental Disabilities Services, said the state is CMS for a waiver to allow training component in lieu of experience of one year of experience.
“We believe that we can safely train these support professionals on-site and put them to work. And that will open our job opportunities for these direct support professionals,” Stone explained.
The second effort to provide healthcare workers is to request from CMS to use $87 million in American Rescue Act money to help “home and community-based providers” with workforce recruitment, retention and training. With waiver approval from the feds, Stone said the state could finally be in a position to fully address what has been a long wait for many families.
“It’s really hard to explain how much help these services can be for a family that has a loved one with an intellectual disability. And so today, I hope that everyone watching, this just renews their hope that they will receive services they’ve been waiting on,” she said.
When asked by reporters about the announcement timing following criticism during the tax cut session, Gov. Hutchinson said the plan has been in the works for six months or more. He said addressing the waiting list has been a “matter of constant emphasis” from day one, but they are “now in a position to do better.”