Snow covers the park in front of the State House in Augusta on Wednesday Dec. 29, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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Alan Cobo-Lewis is associate professor of psychology and director of the University of Maine Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies. He is the parent of two young adults, one of whom has autism. The views expressed are his own.

Three recent developments in Maine highlight budget and policy choices that leave Mainers with disabilities behind. It didn’t have to be this way. But we can make it right.

First, Sweetser announced the closure of Bangor- and Belfast-area group homes for adults with disabilities, putting 45 people at risk of losing their current homes — and at risk of being moved involuntarily to some location far from family and community.

This was driven largely by the inability to compete in today’s labor market for direct-support professionals who can find higher-paying jobs in retail or other sectors. This is because, though the state agreed to raise reimbursement rates for community support agencies to allow them to pay 125 percent of minimum wage (a proposal initially opposed by the Mills administration), that merely implemented a pre-pandemic recommendation that was never adequate to compete in the COVID-affected labor market.

Command economies don’t work. Instead of imposing reimbursement rates that led to unrealistic caps on wages, the Legislature and the governor should have agreed to pay market rates.

Next, the U.S. Department of Justice issued findings that Maine is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by stranding children with disabilities on waitlists and putting them at risk of unnecessary institutionalization, contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1999 Olmstead decision. While the findings pertained specifically to the children’s system, many of them could also apply to the adult system.

Stranding people on waitlists — sometimes for years on end — is unacceptable. Yet, eight years after settling a lawsuit designed to clear wait lists, Maine has 2,355 adults with disabilities on waitlists for services for autism, intellectual disability, brain injury, and other related conditions — a number that will continue growing under the current state budget — and 1,621 children on waitlists for rehabilitative community services, specialized rehabilitative community services, or home-based community treatment.

Even when Mainers with disabilities finally get off the waitlist, they frequently go without services — or go with inadequate services — because when Maine continues to refuse to pay market rates for labor, community support agencies are unable to hire staff. This means isolation and regression for Mainers who deserve better. Mainers who deserve access to their family, home, and community.

Finally, it was trumpeted by the governor’s office and by legislative leadership that Maine closed out the 2022 fiscal year with a nearly $600 million surplus. This means there’s plenty of money to address all of the above issues.

It’s not a matter of money. It’s a matter of choosing not to address a crisis that existed before the pandemic and that has gotten worse and worse and worse.

I appreciate that the Mills administration has allocated substantial federal funds sent to Maine to promote disability support services as a career and to provide one-time incentive payments to direct-care workers. But those allocations are not up to the task. The waitlists — and the Mainers with disabilities going without services even when they’re not officially on a waitlist — back up my view.

We can fix this. Maine can fulfill its broken promises. The governor should call the Legislature into special session to appropriate money to raise direct-support professional wages to market rates and eliminate waitlists in children and adult services for Mainers with disabilities.

Maine’s congressional delegation could also help. Sen. Susan Collins and Rep. Jared Golden could join Sen. Angus King and Rep. Chellie Pingree, who are already sponsoring the Better Care Better Jobs Act, S. 2210 and H.R. 4131, which would provide matching funds to almost triple the cost effectiveness of state investment.

Enough broken promises.