Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Job training for blind people affected by California budget crisis

From the Sunnyvale, Calif., Sun on July 15:

The overdue state budget was still held up in political wrangling last week, and some local agencies that depend on it for their funding said that new penny-pinching alternatives to plain old cuts hurt just as much.

"It's actually fairly devastating," said Diana Drews, CEO and executive director of Sensory Access Foundation.

Located in an unimposing building across from Target at 300 W. Iowa Ave. in Sunnyvale, the nonprofit helps blind and visually impaired people throughout the state get professional-level jobs by training them with job search skills and technologies like screen-readers and video magnifiers.

The state Department of Rehabilitation (DOR) recently converted its contracts with SAF and 23 other agencies from flat annual contracts - SAF received $975,000 last year, 60 percent of its budget - to "performance-based services."

"It's ingenious and insidious," said Drews of the new system, which started on July 1.
Now, what was once considered a single service has been broken down into 25 specific services. SAF and others have to apply for reimbursement for each service provided according to a new fee schedule, which Drews said will slow down the billing process considerably.

The DOR expects to save $3.1 million from the state's general fund with this and several other moves, including slightly tightening its employment belt and complex steps to secure federal funds while spending less to "match" them.

It voluntarity made these decisions to prepare for cuts proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to fix an estimated $17.2 billion deficit.

DOR spokeswoman Jennifer Harris said the DOR set new reimbursement fees based on statewide averages. They will result in higher payments for some agencies and lower payments for other agencies because some have not had their rates raised for years, she said.

For her part, Drews said she fears the fees are so low that SAF will never be able to get the same level of funding it did last year, despite the fact that their funding cap is still $975,000.

When the Sun visited on July 9, SAF was not serving any clients because it was unsure how much the DOR would pay for the services.