The ongoing threat of the novel coronavirus with community spread in Iowa has largely shut down Linn County government offices including Options of Linn County, a day habilitation facility that serves adults with developmental disabilities. We are all feeling the effects of social distancing, self-isolating and hunkering down at home. However, what is most unfortunate is this public health emergency will disproportionately impact our most vulnerable citizens, which is why Linn County has asked for relief from certain Medicaid requirements.
The closure of this county facility could leave nearly 200 clients with physical and developmental disabilities — such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and autism spectrum disorder — in the lurch for eight weeks or longer. Options of Linn County employs 36 professionally trained direct support providers who have long-standing relationships with their clients and provide them vital services. Most of the clients that our staff serve require residential-based service and 24-hour care to ensure their needs are met. About one-third of the individuals live in a family home. As a result of Options closing, some of the families will need to take leave from their jobs to stay home and care for their family member.
Linn County has always viewed itself as the “safety net for the safety net.” At our core, we are a human services agency. We take care of the most vulnerable and those who slip through the cracks of various programs and services. Options of Linn County is just one of a whole host of social service programs that we administer every day through Medicaid and the Iowa Department of Human Services. Our clients and our professional staff who serve those clients are very important to us and we are committed to providing these essential services, but we may have to rethink how we do that.
When Options closed on Tuesday, March 17, professional staff members were not furloughed immediately as we began to consider redeploying our team to provide vital respite services for our clients’ families and caregivers. We continue to explore how to bring services to the home on an individual basis, and how can we safely reconfigure our facility to individualize services on a rolling basis that is safe for our clients and professional staff.
Linn County has petitioned Gov. Kim Reynolds for an executive order to relax or waive some of the Medicaid waiver requirements to allow these changes in services to happen. Specifically, we are asking that our direct care professionals be allowed to work in client homes under the supported community waiver. This will allow them to be paid for the services these families need and allow many of our workers to return to their jobs. Under current rules, it would take weeks or even months to get the approval needed for out-of-work day habilitation staff to cross over to provide other services or to provide current services in a newly configured way.
It is absolutely critical that we remove barriers and rethink how we provide services to our most vulnerable. It is also key to redouble our efforts on formal respite care programs for these families and caregivers who could go months without help. It is incumbent on us to re-imagine services for our most vulnerable population and immediately redeploy the direct support professionals in new ways during this public health crisis.
Brent Oleson is vice chairman of the Linn County Board of Supervisors and resides in Marion.