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Providers push for pay increase for direct care workers

Despite being on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, direct care workers continue be among the state's lowest paid.

BRUNSWICK, Maine — They care for some of Maine's most vulnerable populations - Direct Support Professional's, known as DSP's, work with the elderly and people with disabilities living in group homes and congregate facilities.

Despite being on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, most DSP's earn only close to minimum wage.

Debbie Dionne hasn't been able to hug her daughter since March and it's getting really old.

"'I can go over to her home and sit outside and wear masks but it's just not the same," Dionne said.

Kate has cerebral palsy and an intellectual disability. She moved into this group home right before COVID-19 hit. Staff known as Direct Support Professionals or DSPs help her live independently. Safety guidelines against the spread of the virus initially only allowed daily Zoom calls.

Independence Association runs 10 group homes and provides staff for clients who live on their own in apartments. 

There have been no outbreaks -- Kate now talks to her mom in the driveway twice a week, when she and staff pick up home-cooked meals. Debbie is extremely grateful for the DSP's who often work 16 hour days.

Ray Nagel is the Executive Director of the Independence Association. He says a number of clients have health problems and behaviors that put DSP's them more at risk for COVID. 

Maine's direct care workers, who in many cases are working on the front lines, received a pay increase a few weeks after COVID hit.

The hike to Maine Care reimbursement rates, the state's version of Medicaid, approved by lawmakers was moved up three months early because of the pandemic.

But not all of the estimated 20,000 workers got a boost in pay, a number of providers used the funds to purchase proper protective equipment.

Nagel currently has 21 open positions. He says concerns about the virus and unemployment benefits kept a number of employees from coming back.

A number of providers are lobbying the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to seek a waiver from the feds for another rate increase.

"A 25 percent increase through the end of the civil emergency because we believe our DSPs deserve it and that's what's needed for PPE and cleaning supplies,' Nagel said.

Nagel and other providers are hopeful increasing wages for DSP's will be taken up by lawmakers when they reconvene in January. 

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services tells News Center Maine the temporary increases to service limits and staffing flexibility for providers has been extended to October 31. 

DHHS is also encouraging Medicaid providers to apply for federal funding that helps cover expenses and or increased costs due to the pandemic. The deadline to apply is August 28. 

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