Questions remain over respite closures

TUPPER LAKE – The recently announced closure of respite program houses here has left some wondering what comes next.

Respite care provides a place to bring someone with a condition that might otherwise require them to live in an institution full time. It’s often daytime care, but it can include overnights as well.

Peggy Ratigan and Adrienne Pickard both rely on the services of the respite homes at 18 and 19 Hamilton Ave. When a letter from the state Office for People With Development Disabilities, dated May 16, arrived in their mailboxes, both women said they were shocked to learn the state intends to close the homes and move its consumers to nonprofit care providers.

“As the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities plans for the future, we have been reviewing staffing, clinical supports, administrative oversight, and quality outcomes for state operated programs,” the letter reads. “As a result of our review; we have determined that the State can no longer successfully provide service at this location.”

A date for the closure was not included in the letter, but Ratigan and Pickard both said they’ve heard from various OPWDD representatives that it’s Sept. 1.

Ratigan said she began using respite care when she moved to the area about five years ago. She explained that her son, Chris, who is 31, needs constant supervision and care for symptoms attributed to cerebral palsy, hearing loss, autism and intellectual disability.

“He needs someone to make sure he dries himself after he gets out of the shower, and someone to make sure the water isn’t too hot,” Ratigan said. “He needs someone to wake him up, and to help him get dressed.”

Ratigan said respite services allow her to take care of things like doctor appointments without having to worry about Chris. She was even able to leave Chris at the respite home for several days when she went to Massachusetts to take care of her sister, who was sick.

“I heard about the program, and I knew that I needed stuff done where I basically needed someone to stay at the house with Chris,” Ratigan said. “Respite solved my whole problem.”

Ratigan said she doesn’t care if the state gets out of the respite care business, but she said the OPWDD representatives she’s talked with over the phone have not explained how the state will handle the transition.

“I’ve asked if they’ve even put out requests for proposal, and the answer I got was no,” Ratigan said. “You’ve got to get a group, you’ve got to get a house, and you’ve got to get it all hooked up with sprinklers and things like that. We’re talking at least a year. Since they haven’t even sent out the RFPs, we don’t even know what’s out there.”

Sadie Spada, CEO of Adirondack Arc, said she recently heard about the Hamilton Avenue closures, too. Her nonprofit group also helps people with developmental disabilities.

“I haven’t seen the request for proposal yet, but verbally we were told there were 20 projects statewide that were going to undergo auspice change from state-operated to voluntary, and the respite homes on Hamilton Ave. are the only ones in the Sunmount catchment area that will be undergoing a change,” Spada said.

Spada said Adirondack Arc would be able to take over the entire respite program.

“It would be considered new development for us, which we’ve done in the past, and we’re looking at doing now to expand services where they’re needed,” Spada said. “If it was going to be that real estate, we’d have to look at it, find out what the rates are to make sure it would be financially viable for us. Then it would just be a matter of finding out what the expectations of the program are, and hire staff to staff it and put together a budget and go for it.”

Spada said OPWDD would still oversee the program for compliance with safety and other regulations. She said staff would be specially trained to meet all kinds of consumer needs.

“It will be a seamless transition for services,” Spada said. “People who are getting those services now can expect the same level of service when it goes from a state-operated to a voluntary.”

Pickard said she has been using the Hamilton Avenue respite homes for about two years to help care for her 50-year-old sister, Tammy Celentano. Pickard explained that her sister functions at an 8-year-old level but doesn’t need constant care.

“She can be left alone for short periods of time, but she’s not allowed to make meals for herself because it just isn’t safe,” Pickard said. “She is able to take care of her physical needs, but there are many who have family members who are not able to do that.”

Pickard’s main concern is that nonprofit agencies won’t be able to provide the same level of services as the state provides.

“The individuals at the respite homes that take care of these individuals are very much on top of what they need,” Pickard said. “Whoever they get, are they going to be able to keep staff? Are they going to be able to pay the staff to want to stay there?”

Pickard said there is another program her sister goes to that has a high turnover rate.

“They have a hard time keeping these people because they find another job that pays more, so it’s like a revolving door,” Pickard said. “It’s hard for them because they do have to be certified and they have to do different things to make sure these individuals are capable of providing the care and don’t have a (criminal) record.”

This revolving door makes Pickard nervous because she wants to know who is taking care of Tammy. She sent an email to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office about two weeks ago outlining her concerns, and has yet to receive a reply other than an automated response thanking her for the email.

“Personally, I don’t think there is anything better than what they currently have now,” Pickard said. “The (OPWDD)’s motto is ‘People First.’ Obviously they’re not practicing what they preach.”

The Enterprise also sent an email to Cuomo’s press office that contained a list of questions regarding how the state plans on transitioning to nonprofit respite care services in Tupper Lake. So far there has not been a reply.

The Enterprise also contacted local representatives of Sunmount and OPWDD, who referred all questions to the OPWDD Director of Communications Jennifer O’Sullivan. She would only respond via email.

Most of O’Sullivan’s email responses to the Enterprise’s questions was taken directly from the letter Ratigan and Pickard received. She ignored questions regarding the closure date for the homes, a date an RFP would be issued, whether there are enough facilities in the area to provide respite services and the potential economic impact of the closures.

O’Sullivan wrote that the state would provide oversight on all agencies that assume respite services. She also implied that there would be no job losses.

“All existing state staff will be reassigned or redeployed within OPWDD operations as described in the collective bargaining agreement(s) with each employee union,” O’Sullivan wrote. “In addition, we will continue to engage the unions in discussions to ensure a fair, equitable, and orderly process.”