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Feds approve Pennsylvania's plan to distribute more than $1 billion in pandemic funds for Medicaid services

Amy Sisk
90.5 WESA
Pennsylvania's state Capitol Building is pictured in this file photo.

Federal officials have approved a spending plan from the Wolf administration to distribute approximately $1.2 billion to home and community-based services for seniors and people with disabilities.

The funds are from the federal American Rescue Plan, which was signed by President Joe Biden in March.

Agencies that serve people with disabilities and others in the human services realm have been calling for the funds for many months, citing pandemic-induced staffing strains, as well as increased costs for their agencies.

The state’s plan for the money focuses on increasing access to home and community-based services and staffing for those services, among other things. The services are for people with disabilities, including adults with substance use disorder or mental illness, and children with chronic complex medical needs, according to state officials.

Addressing staff recruitment and retention is key, said Nancy Murray, president of the Arc of Greater Pittsburgh and senior vice president at Achieva.

Driven in part by low government reimbursements leading to low wages, staffing in the sector was long a problem, prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Advocates say the situation is beyond crisis-level now, exacerbated by staffing shortages and an inability to keep up with increasing wages in other service sector jobs.

“We've used the word collapse of the [intellectual disability] system and that's not to be dramatic, but it is collapsing around us,” Murray said.

The federal funds represent “a lifeline,” said Mark Davis, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Advocacy and Resources for Autism and Intellectual Disability.

Among the uses of money allowed in the plan: funding for sign-on and retention bonuses for nurses, direct care workers, and other providers; increased payment rates for providers; money for personal protective equipment and testing supplies; and funds for student loan forgiveness programs to recruit more workers.

Kristin Ahrens, who heads the Office of Developmental Programs in the Department of Human Services, said the state’s plans aim to assist in both short-term and long-term staffing.

“These [American Rescue Plan] funds really provide an unprecedented opportunity to expand, enhance and strengthen home and community-based services in Pennsylvania. So, the department has really approached the plan, looking again at short-term, shoring up from some of the damage from the pandemic and then the long term, looking at how do we expand our services, how do we strengthen home and community-based services?”

The state first submitted its plan to the federal government in June; the plan is available online here.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.