Governor Announces Plan to Reduce Disability Waitlist

Hutchinson also provided updates on the pandemic and storm recovery efforts.

Black man in wheelchair at bus stop

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced a plan today to provide services to everyone currently on the state’s developmental disabilities waiting list by June 2025. Advocates put a spotlight on the issue during last week’s special legislative session that resulted in lawmakers approving the state’s largest tax cut plan

The state’s Community and Employment Supports Waiver provides services to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities who wish to stay in their homes and communities. The waiver serves more than 5,000 Arkansans, but for years there have been thousands more waiting for a slot to open for them. 

Act 1037 of 2019 required the Department of Human Services to eliminate the waitlist by the summer of 2022 as it stood on March 1, 2019, if the provider workforce was available, according to a DHS press release. There are 2,441 individuals waiting today who were on the waitlist as of March 1, 2019. 

As of Dec. 1, there were 3,204 total Arkansans on the developmental disabilities waiting list. Of those, 1,861 clients have incomes low enough that they do qualify for Medicaid services, which could include medical and hospital, mental health services, personal care and speech therapy. 

However, the remainder of the people on the list are receiving no services at all. Hutchinson’s administration previously added 1,200 slots and the governor said officials have been working on the new plan for months.

“We have addressed it, that gives people hope and more people go onto the list, but there’s still many that have been on that list for way, way too long,” Hutchinson said. 

The governor is submitting a waiver request to the federal government to allow Arkansas to have 200 additional slots that will be funded by existing revenue. In the future, he will ask the General Assembly to add $37.6 million in additional funding to create more slots to serve the thousands of other Arkansans on the waitlist. 

That funding is expected to come from the additional $60 million allocated to DHS in the state budget that was approved earlier this year. Lawmakers will likely take action on this during the fiscal session that begins in February. 

Once approved, DHS will submit a request to amend the current waiver to progressively add enough slots during the next three years to serve everyone who is on the waiting list as of today. As slots are filled, eligible individuals on the waitlist will be able to access the full range of services available in traditional State Plan Medicaid services. People have waited a very long time for assistance and “this is a really exciting day for us,” Developmental Disabilities Services director Melissa Stone said.

“Because of this announcement, we are able now to move quickly to get them the services they need to stay in their home and in the community,” Stone said. “The services on these waivers change people’s lives.”

Today is also a milestone for the state’s COVID-19 vaccination program. Arkansas gained access to the vaccine exactly one year ago and in that time 3.6 million doses have been administered to 1.8 million people. The state reported approximately 2,700 fewer COVID-related deaths in 2021 than 2020. 

“This last year we’ve had 3,045 deaths,” Health Secretary Dr. José Romero said. “If we take into consideration that conservatively 70 to 80 percent of those deaths could have been prevented if they were vaccinated, we need to get our population fully vaccinated.”

In addition to the pandemic and the disability waitlist, the governor is also focused on recovery efforts after severe weather on Friday resulted in two deaths and extensive property damage in northeast Arkansas. An EF-3 tornado struck the Monette area, according to preliminary findings from the National Weather Service.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is deploying two teams starting at 8 a.m. Wednesday to assess the damage. Hutchinson surveyed the destruction over the weekend and said 307 structures were impacted and energy companies are working to restore power.

“If there’s anything that is needed, we’re there to respond to that,” Hutchinson said. “We have shelters in place, we have our voluntary organizations that are working with the needs of people, but it’s certainly a devastated area.”

The FEMA teams will be making cost estimates and while the approval process for federal disaster funds can take months, Hutchinson said he’s hopeful it will only take weeks. Arkansas also has a state disaster program that will also be able to support recovery efforts. 

The city of Monette has set up an account for monetary donations at the local branch of Centennial Bank. More information about the account and recovery efforts are available on the city’s Facebook page

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.