Fears Surround WCDC Work Program’s Future

BERLIN – Three times Ron Mehrling tried to retain a job in the local community.

Three times he was let go.

“The employer doesn’t want to be bothered with someone with a disability,” said Carol Mehrling, Ron’s mother.

A traumatic brain injury more than two decades ago left Mehrling, now 48, with memory issues and occasional seizures. His mother says that while he was able to find work in the Baltimore area, since coming to the more seasonal environment of the Eastern Shore he hasn’t been able to hang on to a job. That changed when he began taking part in the work program at the Worcester County Developmental Center.

“He gets paid some money and he feels good about himself,” Carol Mehrling said.

She’s worried that too could come to an end as the state begins to reevaluate facility-based employment programs like the one at the Worcester County Developmental Center (WCDC) that allows clients to work while they attend the center during the week. Those who want to are able to earn money doing things like laundry or working in the facility’s greenhouse.

According to Jack Ferry, director of the developmental center, that center-based employment is in jeopardy as Maryland puts together its plan to come into compliance with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) final ruling regarding home and community based services. CMS, he explained, provides much of the funding for services to people with disabilities in the United States.

Ferry says he’s worried that in coming into compliance with the CMS rule, the state will end facility-based work programs like the one at WCDC and instead will require the organization to find clients jobs in the community. Those who are unable to find employment would be relegated to participating in enrichment activities at the center.

The problem with that, Ferry explained, is that clients who can handle jobs in the community have already been placed in such positions. Those who are working at the center are unable to manage working in the community for one reason or another.

“People who can get out we are getting out,” he said. “A lot of our clients work very well under supervision but for different reasons wouldn’t be able to work in the community.”

Betty Tustin says she would love for her daughter, who attends WCDC Monday through Friday, to find a job in the community. That hasn’t happened though, because she’s in a wheelchair and has some communication issues.

“She’d need supervision enough that it’d make her unemployable,” she said. “She’s got great skills it’s just the issue of needing to be supervised.”

Tustin says the opportunity to work in the greenhouse at WCDC has been an added benefit to her daughter’s life. It’s given her the chance to earn a paycheck, interact with others and even learn about plants.

“She loves to shop,” Tustin said. “She’s very anxious to cash her paycheck each week. It’ll be sad if they take that away from her.”

According to Rebecca VanAmburg, a health policy analyst with Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, says no decisions have been made regarding facility-based work programs. She said the state was simply in the process of creating a transition plan to come into compliance with the CMS final rule.

“We as a state put together a document to try to identify the different programs and pieces we may have to look at to see if we’re meeting the criteria set forth by the state,” she said. “We’ve identified areas we might need to look more closely at.”

Until Feb. 15, her department is soliciting public comments on the draft transition plan that’s been put together. Comments can be emailed to [email protected].

In spite of VanAmburg’s assurances that changes have not been mandated for specific programs yet, Ferry is afraid the state will end the WCDC work program. He says he’s seen it happen in other states and has encouraged area residents who support the WCDC work program to tell officials that.

If the facility-based employment program at the Newark center does close, 67 WCDC clients will be out of work. Ferry says he might be able to get a quarter of them positions in the community.

“Some are lower functioning and just won’t be able to work in the community,” he said.

Ferry says what enables clients to retain jobs at the center is the fact that staff can accommodate any issues individuals might have. They don’t mind if a client needs to take a break every 15 minutes or has some trouble communicating.

“That’s the beauty of it,” Tustin said. “It can be individualized. Adults with developmental disabilities are unique.”

Ferry said the developmental center’s new building, which opened in 2011, enabled the organization to offer jobs in laundry, janitorial work, catering and assembly, among others. Clients, who generated combined earnings of just $25,000 in years past, are now exceeding $73,000 in combined earnings.

“That’s money that’s going back into the community,” Ferry said.