Monroe County has averted running afoul of state and federal law -- at least temporarily -- by reshuffling employees in the public health department and staving off the creation of a waiting list for early childhood intervention services.
The county had been set to start the waitlist Dec. 1 after several local therapy providers said they could no longer afford to offer early intervention services due to low state reimbursement rates.
Ann Marie Stephan, the county’s Special Children's Services Administrator, wrote in an email to service providers late last month that children and families would “be assigned a Service Coordinator as soon one becomes available.”
Now, county spokesperson Jesse Sleezer said, the public health department has reassigned employees who work in administrative and clerical roles to handle the administrative needs of early intervention referrals.
“At the time that letter was sent, there was no viable alternative in place,” said Sleezer. “We began preparing for the worst, and ultimately were able to come up with a workable short-term solution that eliminates any need for a waitlist.”
The waitlist would have brought Monroe County dangerously close to violating a state law that requires children who show signs of developmental delays to be evaluated and referred to a specialist within 45 days of a caregiver notifying the county, advocates said.
Some of the people reassigned in the county’s effort to avoid implementing a waitlist “have likely not worked in the early intervention field before,” Sleezer said.
The county has also moved people from coordinating cases already assigned to therapists to managing initial referrals, Sleezer said. Advocates have said this shift risks denying quality care to children who have already begun therapy.
Jessica Huss and Rebecca Fields were two of the dozens of people who spoke at a county committee meeting Thursday, giving emotional testimony about what early intervention meant to their families.
Huss said every day she sees the benefits of getting her 3-year-old daughter, Kollynn, into therapy right away. Kollynn has autism, and doesn't speak in words.
"She was a quiet non-verbal when we started, but now she is what I call the loudest non-verbal child," Huss said with a laugh. "She makes lots of sounds, and we continue every day to be hopeful that we're going to hear words soon."
Fields told legislators she was grateful that her son, Cole, who was born weighing 2 pounds, 6 ounces, didn't have to wait for the physical, occupational, speech and nutritional therapy he's received. "Being put on that waitlist would be devastating," she said.
The county's move is a temporary fix that “might not be viable a week or a month from now,” Sleezer said.
“Early intervention can only be reformed in the long term by state action on reimbursement rates,” he said, echoing a call by early intervention therapists for the state to raise payments they say have only decreased since the 1990s.
This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.