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VP DiAntonio shares members’ input on mental health impacts of COVID-19 on OPWDD, OMH patients

By KATE MOSTACCIO

PEF Vice President Randi DiAntonio testified before the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Mental Health on Sept. 8, shedding light on the impact of COVID-19 on individuals with mental illness or intellectual or developmental disabilities.

PEF represents approximately 10,000 members at the state Office of People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) and the state Office of Mental Health (OMH).  DiAntonio said these professionals, who work daily on the frontlines of patient care, should have been at the table during planning for the pandemic.

“I’m extremely disappointed that OPWDD was not here today to present,” she told the committee members during a virtual hearing. “The communications, the transparency, the unwillingness to include the state’s treatment professionals – who are nurses, doctors, social workers, PTs and OTs who know the people they serve and the people they work with very well – they have not been included in the planning and implementation process.

“But we’re used to this,” she said. “For the last 10 years, while the state has had dramatic changes to the system of mental hygiene, we have not been included at the table. Over the last 10 years, we have been doing less with less. We have lost over 20 percent of the OPW and OMH workforce since 2009 – that’s over 5,000 positions in each agency.”

RELATED: PEF tells state lawmakers of pandemic’s effects on state workforce
(Link http://www.pef.org/media-center/the-communicator/pef-tells-state-lawmakers-of-pandemics-effects-on-state-workforce/)

DiAntonio said agencies are stretched thin and decisions by the state to remedy the situation have not resolved issues and have even created new ones.

“Managed care is not the answer,” she said. “It may work for some people but those with the most complex needs often end up with fewer services.”

She said New York, under the guise of moving people into more independent living settings, moved forward without input from professionals on the frontlines and clients ended up in situations where they didn’t have the proper services and support through the pandemic.

“They ended up in settings, hospitals, jails, with 911 being the provider of last resort,” DiAntonio said. “That is unacceptable when you have licensed clinical professionals ready to do the work. OPW and OMH have not included the treatment professionals in this process and that model will always lead to failure on the frontlines.”

DiAntonio offered possible solutions to avoid similar inadequate response in the future.

“One of the biggest issues is inconsistent, inaccurate, incomplete guidelines that were sent out,” she said. “They were sent out and changed daily. The answers we got at the field level, ‘Well, we’re waiting for Central Office’, or ‘waiting for the Governor’s Office,’ or ‘we’re waiting for someone to tell you how to do the work you need to do to get it done and to do it safely.’”

Without a solid plan, PEF members were working without personal protective equipment (PPE), without information on how to contain the virus safely and without appropriate protocols for testing.

“The lack of PPE and the exposure risks led to such chaos,” DiAntonio said. “Not just for individuals but for the people closest to them in group homes. Our members in day programs were sent into group homes. It looks good on paper, but many were sent into locations with individuals they weren’t used to working with. Continuity of care really suffered.”

Redeployments left many patients without support at a time when those services were vital. It also left PEF members reeling in positions they hadn’t been trained for and were unused to working.

“We had providers in the community, intensive case managers, community health nurses, that were redeployed into inpatient settings, some of which weren’t necessary because there weren’t high levels of COVID-positive cases,” DiAntonio said. “That again sounds good but the ripple effect, those people had their own caseloads, individuals living in the community, that were not getting services because they were busy being deployed into units they weren’t trained for. The patients on those units didn’t know them, they weren’t provided with proper PPE, this whole thing points to a complete lack of preparedness.”

Fallout from forced redeployments rippled across the entire mental health system.

“Mandated overtime and refusal to allow people to have adjusted schedules when our members were excluded, even though they are essential workers, from using child care benefits led to extremely seasoned and experienced professional staff in PEF deciding to retire or resign because they were being faced with a choice – take care of your kids or go to work,” DiAntonio said.

Assemblywoman Aileen M. Gunther, chair of the committee, asked DiAntonio where the state should begin to make necessary changes.

Staffing was first on the list.

“We have been underfunded and understaffed and cut for 10 years,” DiAntonio said. “Something folks should be aware of is that they are starting to suspend services in various DDSOs (Developmental Disabilities Services Offices) around the state because they don’t have enough nurses.”

Brookyn DDSO has suspended some services; 24-hour medical homes are closing, forcing those they served into nursing homes with less independence and quality of life; and people are being moved into the community before they are ready, leaving them with only 911 to call when they are on the streets.

“We do appreciate that yesterday a bill was passed around for emergency preparedness and planning,” DiAntonio said. “We hope that bill actually does what it is intended for, which is include the right people at the table before the next phase.”

To view PEF’s submitted testimony, click here.

To view DiAntonio’s spoken testimony before the committee, click here. Her segment begins at 4:32:57.