A pair of state commissioners went on the defense today, standing up for the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. Yesterday, an audit knocked the DIDD for failing people who might be able to hold a job or lead a normal life if they just had a little more help.
Only the most severely disabled Tennesseans receive any kind of help from the state. That was true before the department was formed in 2011, and it’s still the case now. Former Commissioner Jim Henry estimates there are least 20 thousand more people who need assistance beyond those getting it now, and he warned a legislative panel that the numbers will only grow as the cases of autism rapidly increase. The problem, according to Henry, was the economy. He says the department inherited financial problems from its predecessor agencies, was told to cut its budget, and lost federal funds during the sequester.
“If anybody’s to blame about not going out and pursuing new programs, it’s me. But the only thing we were trying to do was shelter the programs we had in place and keep those people from being affected by all the changes and the cuts being made.”
In all, officials say 1800 jobs were cut from DIDD in its first two years, and the only new enrollments in any program were people who are not just disabled, but in crisis situations.
Henry transferred to the Department of Children’s Services earlier this year. His replacement, Commissioner Debra Payne says work is starting to map out potential new services, including a count of how many Tennesseans have developmental disabilities. But she says implementation is at least a couple of years in the future.
The release of the audit and legislative hearing were timed for this week because the DIDD was due for renewal. The Joint Legislative Committee on Government Operations voted to let the department continue operations for another four years, although one lawmaker specified that his vote was cast with the expectation that DIDD officials start to aggressively seek out adequate funding.