Roswell resident Celeste Chippero stands with her son, Peter, during a press conference at the Capitol in February, when families and advocates called for state lawmakers to bolster disability services. Credit: Riley Bunch/GPB News

Advocates for Georgia’s disabled community have long been fighting a battle in the hallways and committee rooms of the Capitol to remedy the state’s long wait for support services — with access often taking more than a decade.  

This story also appeared in Georgia Public Broadcasting

The state’s New Options Waiver (NOW) and Comprehensive Supports Waiver (COMP) programs through Medicaid are designed to help Georgians with intellectual and developmental disabilities avoid being institutionalized. 

Instead, resources like in-home nurses and day programs offer support for them to live at home and integrate within their communities.

But lawmakers only fund a handful of slots in the budget each year as the waitlist continues to grow. According to the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, more than 7,000 people are on that list.

A bipartisan group of legislators on Wednesday recommended the state fund 2,400 additional waiver slots in the upcoming FY2024 budget as the first installment in a three-year plan to do away with the waitlist completely. In 2022, lawmakers funded an additional 513 waiver slots for the FY2023 budget.

State Sen. Sally Harrell, an Atlanta Democrat, speaks at a press conference at the Capitol in February. Harrell is leading a legislative push to eliminate the long waitlist for disability services in the state. Credit: Riley Bunch/GPB News

On Wednesday, members of a Senate study committee reviewing the obstacles Georgians with disabilities face in accessing the program backed several recommendations to ease the bureaucratic process for obtaining services and bolster the service provider workforce.

We don’t consider our work done today,” said Sen. Sally Harrell, an Atlanta Democrat who co-chaired the committee. “We’ve done a lot of work; we have in front of us a 35-page report. But we are not going to be able to address the whole thing right now. This is the beginning — this is the kickoff — of a process of solving these issues, which are deep and complex.

Hours of testimony

The committee held meetings over the course of several months and listened to hours of testimony from advocates, providers and Georgians with disabilities about how the state’s hard-to-navigate system is harming lives.

Roswell resident Celeste Chippero — who moved from Michigan to Georgia six years ago — testified to lawmakers during a hearing in August that parents of disabled children and adults have been left stranded.

Through tears, she described caring for her 32-year-old son, Peter, who has cerebral palsy. 

Their family has been on the Medicaid waitlist for 5 years, she said, and they wrongfully assumed when they moved that care would be easy to access in Georgia as it was in their previous home.

“I know parents who left Georgia to go someplace else so they can get care for their kids,” she said. “And quite honestly, we can’t retire right now for what we have to do to provide for our kids to be in theseprograms.”

The greatest fear as a parent: what happens when I’m gone?” she continued. “We need programs that support the severelydisabled and that aren’twarehousing them or institutionalized. He deserves a life where he can enjoy the things that he does.”

Another debate throughout the study committee process was recruitment and retention of service providers. Many who work with Georgians with disabilities told the committee they can’t retain employees because the wage rate doesn’t even match that of working in the fast-food industry.

Sonya Johnson, executive director of Woodwright Industries, a program provider in Cartersville, told lawmakers in September one of her longest-serving employees left last year, stating in her exit interview that the pay was the main cause.

I agree with the other providers that you’re in it for not the money, you’re in it for the passion,” she said. “But with the increase of everything and the inflation of everything within the whole entire state of Georgia — the United States — it’s not in life-sustainable.”

Johnson said that employee ended up taking a job at Taco Bell.

More to be done

Back at the Capitol, legislative study committee members expressed disappointment that the final recommendations for ending the waitlist didn’t include a dollar figure for a suggested minimum wage for direct service providers. 

They cited the fact that a wage rate study done by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities hasn’t been completed.

Roswell Republican John Albers said he, too, was disappointed the committee couldn’t recommend a minimum wage rate but encouraged meeting attendees to look at the bigger picture.

There comes a time where we want to try and do the right thing and make sure we’re advancing the ball, but we also know that our end goal is not yet achieved,” he said. “There’s too (many) other good things happening… to walk away disappointed over one out of all the other issues.

This story comes to The Current GA through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

Riley Bunch/GPB News

Riley Bunch is a public policy reporter at Georgia Public Broadcasting covering the intersection of government and daily life. Bunch has won awards for both her journalism and photography during her time...