Haslam eyes program to help intellectually disabled get jobs

By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday that a program to help people with intellectual disabilities find jobs makes sense, but he wants to learn more about it before investing $19 million.

The Republican governor heard from state health officials during a week of budget hearings at the state Capitol. He’s scheduled to hear from 26 state agencies as he crafts his annual spending proposal that will likely top $34 billion.

State health officials on Tuesday told Haslam that the job service would target people receiving home- and community-based services through TennCare, the state’s version of Medicaid, and that it’s part of a unique program where “employment and independent living is the first and preferred option” in assisting Tennesseans with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Haslam told reporters following the hearing that he favors the program but wants to dig down further and understand how it will work.

“Obviously, $19 million is a big chunk of new money,” he said. “The program does make sense to me.”

TennCare Director Darin Gordon said the program moves away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach to one that more appropriately meets the needs of individuals who are seeking services.

“But also offers additional avenues for employment, which is something we’ve never done really intentionally as we should in the past,” Gordon said.

There are currently about 8,000 people that receive home- and community-based services, according to TennCare spokeswoman Kelly Gunderson. She said the program would also benefit hundreds of people on a waiting list to receive those services, as well as developmentally disabled individuals.

A majority of people with disabilities want to work, but less than 15 percent are employed in a job in the community, earning at least minimum wage, according to TennCare officials.

The program would help those who want to work, as well as help provide them with the skills to do so through an array of providers working with the state, officials said.

“This is an opportunity for more people with disabilities to have a service that’s important to them and helps keep those families intact,” said Debra Payne, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

Melanie Bull, public policy director for the Tennessee Disability Coalition, said she likes the program because it would provide a boost of confidence to disabled individuals, as well as a sense of independence.

“It’s beneficial because it’s transformational,” Bull said.