(back) (next) (contents)


The Braille Monitor,  October 2001 EditionThis is a line.

Dissension in the Vocational Rehab Ranks

by Barbara Pierce

 

Barbara Pierce
Barbara Pierce

            For sixty years the Council of State Administrators of Vocational Rehabilitation (CSAVR) has been the professional organization comprising leaders in state rehabilitation agencies. It was established to represent the interests of the directors of state vocational rehabilitation agencies whenever those interests are potentially affected by legislation, appropriations, or federal policies or regulations. As an advocacy organization representing the state and federal vocational rehabilitation program, securing adequate federal appropriations to operate and expand the program from year to year is probably the top priority of CSAVR or would be of any other organization in its position. In fact, protecting the health, vitality, and image of vocational rehabilitation is necessarily the single most important purpose of the CSAVR, since it has historically been the primary means by which the state vocational rehabilitation agencies speak collectively to the Congress, to the Rehabilitation Services Administration, and to any other federal agency.

            In 1973 CSAVR established an office in Washington, D.C., and set out to raise its profile in addressing rehabilitation issues on Capitol Hill. Since that office opened, Joseph H. Owens has been the executive director of CSAVR after a distinguished career as a staffer on Capitol Hill. In July of this year he announced plans to retire though he has agreed to stay on until a successor can be found. Since the early nineties Jack G. Duncan has been the CSAVR General Council and legislative liaison, and according to CSAVR documents he is under contract to CSAVR without cancellation clause until the end of 2003 or 2004, depending on which document you read. He too came to CSAVR after Congressional service; he worked for a number of years as the staff director for the Subcommittee on Select Education in the House of Representatives. Duncan has also been general council for the National Council of State Agencies for the Blind (NCSAB); the two organizations are obviously close allies, and a number of state blindness agency administrators belong to both.

            Membership dues for NCSAB are fixed and identical for all members, regardless of the size of the state or the agency. CSAVR dues are another matter altogether. CSAVR has eighty-two members. These are either general rehabilitation, blindness, or combined agencies serving the entire disabled community. CSAVR has chosen to link the amount of its dues for each agency to the amount of federal funding the state receives for rehabilitation, according to the complicated formula that determines the amount of that funding--the larger the amount of federal VR funding going to a state, the larger that state's agency or agencies' CSAVR dues. The formula in question begins with the population and average earnings in the state, so the more populous states have historically supplied a significant portion of the CSAVR budget.

            A brief lesson in VR funding under the Rehabilitation Act is in order before we go further. The primary funding for state rehabilitation agencies is authorized under section 110 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 as amended. Funds are distributed to states under a formula based on population and average earnings in the state. Two years ago, in federal fiscal year 2000, six states received less money than they had the year before. These states were Texas, Colorado, Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia. Prior to that time (or at least in recent history) no state had ever received less money than it had the year before. Part of the reason that normal fluctuation in population and per capita earnings had not caused any state before that to lose funds is that the section 110 funds under the Act are expected to grow by a cost of living increase equal to the consumer price index, urban (CPIU). The increase is applied to the overall amount of section 110 funds but is not guaranteed to each state. In other words each year the amount of section 110 funds increases, but, when the money is divided according to the formula, an individual agency may receive either more or less than the CPIU increase, depending on changes in state population and average personal income.

            In fiscal year 2000 six states lost money when the formula was applied because in recent years the rate of inflation has been quite low. Together with a strong economy this meant that some states did not fare as well under the formula because average state earnings went up. In some cases decreased population also contributed to the problem.

            The VR reductions in the six affected states stirred up lots of anxiety, not only in those states, which faced immediate rehabilitation budget cuts, but in a number of others. According to several state rehabilitation officials, many state employees and folks on Capitol Hill had assumed that the automatic CPIU increase would always be available to every state agency. They began making frantic calculations and projected that as many as twenty states could be receiving less funding than they had expected in the 2001 fiscal year, now coming to an end. Not unnaturally in the emergency a number of these states turned to their Congressional delegations for possible redress.

            According to officials in the affected states, their first step was to go to Owens and Duncan to urge them to help find some relief and to persuade Congress to resolve the problem permanently by changing the formula so that all states would get at least the intended cost of living increase. The CSAVR staff response was clear from the start: most of the states were not affected by this funding crunch, and Congress would certainly not alter the formula just to give relief to a few states. The only true solution, state officials say Owens and Duncan told them, would be to increase the overall size of the VR pie. If the rehabilitation establishment could persuade Congress to enlarge the VR budget by say $600,000,000, enough of an increase would be available for every state, even using the infamous formula, to fund rehabilitation programs appropriately, never mind simply meeting the crisis facing the grumbling states.

            In an interview Duncan pointed out that CSAVR, being composed of agencies from all the states, is hardly in a position to take sides in differences of opinion about how inadequate VR funding should be divided. Some group of states is always going to be dissatisfied. New York, Duncan pointed out, has been complaining about the formula as far back as he can remember, and that is 1973.

            But, in the minds of many with whom we spoke, something more seems to have been going on with the Owens/Duncan response. According to one knowledgeable observer who requested anonymity, Owens and Duncan have for years taken the attitude that they would let members know when issues arose about which they should be concerned. They did not appreciate, this source speculates, having members come to them demanding that they help the worried states persuade Congress to do something to help--something that the CSAVR staff had not been the ones to suggest.

            Worried state officials of some thirteen states refused to remain in line behind the CSAVR leadership's plan to argue only for a substantial increase in the entire 110 budget line item; they needed Congressional help, and they needed it as soon as possible. The solution they began discussing with Members of Congress was to calculate how much additional funding would be needed to provide every state with the cost of living adjustment (COLA) that everyone had been counting on. The states that were coming out on the short end of the stick understood that the formula would have to be applied and that some states would therefore receive more than a cost of living increase. But, they reasoned, if Congress could find enough extra funding to give the COLA to the states that would stand either to lose money or to receive a smaller increase from the formula distribution, everyone would be satisfied, in the short run at least. The amount necessary to meet this need was a bit unclear since the total would change depending on when the calculation was made, but in discussions with Congress the coalition was using nineteen million as a working figure.

            A number of things became clear as Capitol Hill conversations began taking place. Members of the coalition report that Owens and Duncan started warning CSAVR members that the unhappy states were likely to ruin the chances for receiving a significant increase in 110 funding. Such statements were understood as a not too subtle threat to keep unhappy states in their places and silent except when told by CSAVR to speak. One observer who asked not to be identified commented wryly that the pattern was all too familiar: CSAVR would take the credit if Congress came across with additional funding from two hundred forty million (CSAVR's most recent request) to six hundred million (its original figure), and the staff would claim that they got it done despite the coalition's messing around on Capitol Hill. If, however, as seemed likely, no such Congressional largess appeared, CSAVR would blame the dissidents for ruining its chance to solve the rehabilitation-funding problem for the foreseeable future.

            None of this dissuaded members of the coalition. They headed off to Capitol Hill, and there they say that they made a discouraging discovery. As they began talking with Members of Congress and their staffs, they quickly learned that the names of CSAVR and Jack Duncan meant nothing or next to nothing. Coalition members say they were told that, when staffers turned to CSAVR for information about vocational rehabilitation, the staff was unresponsive. One key Congressional staffer told coalition members that in twelve years he had met Jack Duncan only once. In short, Congressional staff members communicated directly and indirectly that CSAVR commanded very little respect on the Hill.

            For a number of CSAVR members this seems to have been the final straw. In many ways they had found CSAVR leadership unresponsive for some time. For example, they had been trying to get access to the organization's financial and other records for two years without much luck. By the time the April 2001 annual meeting of CSAVR was approaching, a number of states had had about enough of what they perceived as staff high-handedness and inaction. Members of the coalition decided to try running an alternate slate of officers in the April election. By this time thirteen members (Alaska, combined state rehabilitation agency; Connecticut, general rehabilitation agency; Georgia, general; Michigan, general and blind rehabilitation agency; Minnesota, general and blind; Mississippi, combined; New York, general and blind; Ohio, combined; Virginia, general; and Wisconsin, general) had become part of the coalition with another eight or ten members clearly sympathetic.

            Then on the Friday before the CSAVR meeting opened, Tom Jennings, then CSAVR president and director of the New Jersey general VR agency, suddenly provided a number of documents, including financial reports and a budget, to Butch McMillan, director of the Mississippi general VR agency. The documents clearly demonstrate CSAVR priorities. In 2000 Joe Owens's salary was $221,484.96; the amount of his fringe benefits is unclear because a couple of support personnel benefits are probably included in the $53,502.04, benefits line item that appears. It's a bit difficult to pick out Jack Duncan's consultancy fee in the report, but the only budget figure that could cover it is $216,251.07 in the Temporary Support line item. In a total budget of 779,641.14, personnel expenditures of this magnitude are certainly significant.

            The tensions at the April 2001 CSAVR meeting were palpable. The coalition articulated their dissatisfactions, but members say that they received no response except a request for a written reprise of them, which was submitted in May and which has never, according to one of the authors of that document, received a response. When the election took place, the alternate slate of candidates did not win, but they received close to thirty votes, an impressive showing for a first try.

            The coalition decided to meet in New York on June 1 to discuss what steps to take next. The agencies attending that meeting all assumed places on the board of a new organization they named the National Organization of Rehabilitation Partners (NORP). The initially participating state organizations are Alaska, combined; Michigan, general and blind; Minnesota, general and blind; Mississippi, combined; New York, general and blind; Ohio, combined; and Virginia, general. These agencies agreed the first year to contribute to the new organization the amount in dues that they have been paying to CSAVR. Nothing in NORP's bylaws prevents an agency from belonging to both NORP and CSAVR.

            The group is still working out organizational procedures. According to Eric Parks, Chairman of NORP's board of directors, each state will have two votes. When two agencies in a state are members, each will have one vote. In combined agencies the director will have one and will determine who will have the other. The dues will be lower than CSAVR's, but then the cost of doing business will also be very much lower than CSAVR's. Each state with members from two agencies will determine for itself how its dues will be paid. NORP's fiscal year will be October 1 to September 30, conforming to the federal fiscal year.

            The group has elected Butch McMillan of Mississippi as its first president and John Connelly, the new director of Ohio's combined agency as the president elect. Gray Broughton, who directs Virginia's general rehabilitation agency, serves as secretary/treasurer, and Eric Parks, a member of the Ohio Rehabilitation Services Commission and a consumer, was elected to chair the board.

            One of the first orders of business, according to those who attended the June meetings, was to select an organization in the Washington, D.C., area to assist NORP to establish itself and to represent it on Capitol Hill. In August they chose the Leonard Resource Group (LRG) of northern Virginia. September 21 NORP sent letters to all state rehabilitation agencies inviting them to consider affiliating with it whether or not they continue their CSAVR membership. Given the September 11 terrorist attacks, no one knows whether any money will be available on Capitol Hill for coping with domestic crises like too little funding for rehabilitation, but NORP is gearing up to begin working for a nineteen-million-dollar appropriation plus a 5 percent increase in 110 money to address the cost of living increase.

            How do the various players view what has been happening? Jack Duncan is somewhat philosophical. He says that what has happened is classic organizational politics and that CSAVR is very lucky that it has not happened before now, given the fact that what is good for some of its members is always bad for others. He thinks it is distressing for rehabilitation administrators to battle over relatively small amounts of money when the real challenge is to increase the overall funding allocation from Congress so that good rehabilitation can be done in every state.

            John Connelly is clearly grateful to have an organization now willing to work energetically to solve the systemic fiscal problems pressing his and other VR agencies. Moreover, he points out that for the first time in many years CSAVR is now actively engaged in doing something constructive in the rehabilitation field. The group recently produced a plan of action. True, he comments, as far as he can tell, the plan has no built-in measures of progress, but it is at least a plan. Also Connelly says that CSAVR recently went to Congressman John Behner of Ohio, who chairs the Education and the Workforce Committee, urging a substantial increase in technology funding. Connelly says that NORP has also approached Behner to back its plan to provide rehabilitation funding relief. It was probably not a good idea for the two groups to come asking for different things, but at least CSAVR is doing something, which is all to the good, according to Connelly.

            Last spring Jack Duncan spoke to President Maurer about what he considered the NFB's having taken sides against CSAVR. In an interview with the Braille Monitor he explained that the NFB and CSAVR had worked collegially in the past, and he was disappointed to find Jim Gashel speaking out in support of the actions of the coalition, now NORP.

            Jim Gashel saw the matter quite differently, and therein may well lie the crux of this parting of the ways. Gashel acknowledged that in the past he twice addressed CSAVR annual gatherings. He explained that CSAVR was an important player in the blindness field's 1995 Congressional victory in getting rehabilitation funding removed from the Workforce Development Act. Without CSAVR's help it is doubtful that we could have won that fight, given the groups lined up against rehabilitation in that struggle.

            When Gashel addressed CSAVR in the fall of 1995, he pointed out that they had won the battle in Congress in large part because blind people were willing to put aside some of our deep reservations about rehabilitation so that we could all work together to preserve the state rehabilitation agencies. Gashel says he told the group that consumer concerns were still present, and that they would be back on the table in the future, and we would then expect the agencies to demonstrate the same sort of support for consumers that we had provided to them in fighting the Careers bill.

            By the fall of 1997 the NFB had secured agreement by Congressional staff and Department of Education representatives, including RSA Commissioner Fred Schroeder, on important amendments concerning consumer choice and eligibility. The choice language converted everything that had been expressed in the 1992 amendments as a philosophical statement about choice into a mandated approach. We had managed to establish a presumption of eligibility for blind or disabled SSDI and SSI recipients in the 1992 amendments, but the CSAVR had also secured language in those amendments to say that the person had to require vocational rehabilitation services in order to achieve an employment outcome. The effect of this language was that recipients of SSDI and SSI could still be denied VR services if the agency determined that the person didn't actually require VR services in order to achieve an employment outcome, and in fact that was exactly what was happening.

By the fall of 1997 we had succeeded in securing an agreement that the new language in the amendments, later passed in 1998, would clarify that any recipient of SSDI or SSI based on blindness or disability would automatically be considered to require VR services. This more than anything else was what CSAVR was objecting to. In fact, CSAVR representatives were refusing to attend meetings where this and other issues were being discussed. So Congressional staffers were meeting separately with a group from CSAVR to listen to their objections.

Jim Gashel recalls contacting Jack Duncan a day or so before one of their meetings to tell him that the NFB thought the most recent draft bill was very good and that we urged CSAVR to accept it. However, rather than listening and demonstrating a desire to work with us, as we had done in 1995, Duncan was more opposed to these concepts than Gashel had ever known him to be. In fact, he said that CSAVR was absolutely against these amendments. By the time the meeting actually took place, he had cooled down considerably, and CSAVR opposition was not voiced as strongly as Duncan had with Gashel. CSAVR did convince the staff to include an eligibility provision stipulating that SSDI or SSI recipients would have to state that they want to obtain employment as a condition for achieving eligibility. This means that, by filing an application for VR services, the individual would be making a commitment to seek employment. But achieving an employment outcome is already the purpose of vocational rehabilitation, so this provision was hardly a concession.

            Last January, when a number of state agency directors and Federation leaders got together at the National Center for discussions, the funding problems facing a number of the agencies present came up for discussion. Gashel agreed to meet with some of them in February to outline the steps they needed to take to try to get Congressional redress. He arranged for Kristin Cox, Assistant Director of Governmental Affairs, to accompany members of the group to some of their appointments on the Hill. Subsequent to that he was approached and asked to speak with a few agency directors whom he knows well about the proposed alternate slate of CSAVR candidates for the April election.

            Gashel agreed that consumers should not have control over who leads CSAVR. In his various conversations he merely pointed out that CSAVR seemed to be adrift and certainly had opposed the choice provisions of the '98 amendments. To his mind Gashel was doing nothing more than trying to strengthen CSAVR in ways that would be constructive for consumers. He has had no contact with NORP and did not even know what steps had been taken to bring it into being.

            At the moment no one can tell how this schism in the ranks of VR administrators will resolve itself and what impact it will have on Congressional funding for rehabilitation. The time was when funding for special education was only a fraction of that provided by Congress for rehabilitation. Today special education funding is $6,340,000,000, and rehabilitation funding is still down at $2,400,000,000.

            A number of factors go to explain this gap, not least the hard work of those fighting for special education funding. But it is also pretty clear that state rehabilitation agencies have not had an effective voice on the Hill for a very long time. When CSAVR teamed with consumers, as in the Careers Bill fight in 1995, it was successful. When it stood alone in opposing the 1998 Rehabilitation Act Amendments, it had virtually no success. The emergence of NORP is probably no surprise. It's too early to tell how all this will play out, but we can hope that a professional organization ready to work with consumers to revitalize rehabilitation and increase its funding will be one result.

(back) (next) (contents)