Big cut to child services assailed

Mass. lawmakers rip Patrick plan

By Kyle Cheney
State House News Service / February 1, 2011

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Warning that a proposed 27 percent cut by Governor Deval Patrick would decimate programs for newborns and young children with disabilities, advocates for early intervention programs shored up support from prominent lawmakers yesterday.

“The governor’s decision to cut [early intervention] to its lowest level in over 10 years is deeply disturbing,’’ said Senate majority leader Frederick Berry. “In all my years in politics I’ve never seen such a shortsighted decision.’’

Early intervention services include occupational, physical, and speech therapy for children from birth to 3 years old with developmental delays.

Children with autism and cerebral palsy are among those eligible for services, and backers say more than half of those admitted to early intervention avoid needing special education services when they reach school age.

Berry and other backers of early intervention say existing programs, funded by the state at $29.4 million this year, provide services for more than 30,000 children.

In the budget proposal unveiled last week, Patrick proposed cutting the early intervention budget to about $21.5 million, a cut supporters say would eliminate or reduce services for up to 15,000 children.

“Programs would close,’’ said Mary Ann Mulligan, a consultant for the Massachusetts Early Intervention Consortium. Backers say that without access to early intervention, parents will be forced to find costlier and less coordinated services that would drive up health care costs.

Administration officials say the number of children receiving early intervention services has increased steadily through the most recent recession.

“At the same time you have decreasing or perpetually problematic funds,’’ said Lauren Smith, medical director of the state Bureau of Family Health and Nutrition. “It does create a pretty tricky situation. For a program like Massachusetts, which has been really at the forefront of expanding coverage . . . the idea of contracting the program is not something that is attractive or appealing.’’

To absorb the cut in funding, the state Department of Public Health is looking into a tiered system of access to programs.

About 9,000 children with the most severe developmental delays would be entitled to federally funded services, said Ron Benham, director of DPH’s bureau of family health and nutrition.

Those with lesser delays would participate in a state early intervention program as long as funds remain available.

“There is certainly the potential of a waiting list,’’ Benham said. The proposal for that bifurcated system is pending before the federal Department of Education and Office of Special Education Programs.

Yesterday, the Massachusetts Early Intervention Consortium convened a briefing at the State House and won support from key members of the Legislature. Among those in attendance included Representative Steven Walsh, Democrat of Lynn, named cochair of the Health Care Financing Committee Friday, and Representative Thomas Conroy, Democrat of Wayland.

Conroy, the health care committee’s vice chair, described the governor’s proposed cut as very dangerous and said it amounts to “shooting ourselves in the foot.’’ Conroy said he was confident that the Legislature would reverse the governor’s cut and restore funding to the “30 to 35 million dollar range.’’

“We’ve got a great group of powerful legislators here,’’ Conroy said.

A handful of Republicans were on hand as well, including Representatives Shaunna O’Connell of Taunton, Angelo D’Emilia of Bridgewater, Geoff Diehl of Whitman, and Kimberly Ferguson of Holden.