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Bill to create commission focused on delivering more help to Georgians with disabilities gains traction 

“We need to be at the table, because we are registered voters and we vote and our voices count,” Dorothy Harris, who is a self-advocate from Fitzgerald, said at a press conference held Wednesday at the state Capitol. (Credit: Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder)

Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder
February 7, 2024

Advocates are rallying behind a bipartisan proposal to create a new commission focused on Georgians with disabilities in hopes of replicating the success of a group that was behind a landmark mental health bill that passed in 2022.

That bill, sponsored by Atlanta Democratic Sen. Sally Harrell, did not gain traction last year but it is faring better this session. It cleared a Senate committee last week with a unanimous vote.

The commission was recommended by a Senate study committee that met in 2022 to examine the demand for Medicaid services that are meant to keep people with disabilities out of institutional settings and in their homes and communities. 

Supporters say the 22-member commission made up of experts and advocates would work to find solutions to tough long-term challenges, probing issues like housing and supportive employment with the goal of helping more people live independently and contribute to their communities.

Diane Wilush, who is president and CEO of United Cerebral Palsy of Georgia and a board member of the state association that represents providers, said the commission is also key for bringing services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities into the 21st century.

“We operate an antiquated system, a highly complex, somewhat inefficient system. It is very challenging for families and individuals to navigate, and we surely can do better,” Wilush said.  

The commission would remain in place for at least five years.

“That would give us enough time to bring the experts together, fix the problems, implement the solutions and see some results,” Harrell said to her colleagues last week.

On Wednesday, Harrell called on the advocacy community to help keep the momentum going in hopes of soon ending the waiting list for services that has long been a perennial issue under the Gold Dome. Today, more than 7,000 people are on the list. 

“We need to end the waiting list for NOW and COMP waivers once and for all. That’s now within sight,” Harrell said at a press conference held Wednesday at the state Capitol.

State revenues had surged following the pandemic, but efforts to spend more of that funding on these services have been slowed by workforce shortages that create another challenge for people with disabilities even if they have services: finding a professional caregiver.

That’s why advocates are cheering the governor’s decision to include $79 million in next year’s budget to go toward the $107 million needed to fund a $6-per-hour raise for direct-support professionals. The rest of the money to implement the proposal will come from federal pandemic relief aid.

But they are also pushing lawmakers to approve the commission and significantly increase the funding for Medicaid services. This year’s budget included funding for 500 waivers, but as of now, the governor’s proposed spending plan for next year calls for 100 new spots. 

The head of the state agency that administers the program recently outlined a plan last month to boost waiver services in the future. Kevin Tanner, commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, said about 900 people could gain services a year if the state funds 500 new waivers as about 400 people exit the program annually.  

D’Arcy Robb, executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, argues Georgia can and should move more aggressively to put an end to the waitlist. Instead, she is pushing for 2,400 waivers to be funded next year at a cost of about $65 million. That’s what the Senate study committee recommended in 2022, putting the state on track to fully fund the list in three years. 

“The disability community has been underinvested in for so long. We’ve got momentum. People are starting to get what they need and there are huge possibilities for this community. Georgia just needs to keep going,” Robb said.

Harrell said she thinks it’s reasonable to knock out the waiting list over the next five years, which would be the lifespan of the commission.

Georgia Recorder is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Georgia Recorder maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John McCosh for questions: Follow Georgia Recorder on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Georgia Recorder under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.