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Each year in the United States, Americans make 178 million life-threatening trips over 46,154 structurally deficient bridges. The horrendous shape of our nation’s infrastructure is what compelled the Biden administration and Congress to pass the $65 billion bipartisan infrastructure deal. The risk of injury or death was simply too much to bear and the situation too serious to ignore any longer. Locally, over $1.1 billion has been allocated to address its infrastructure issues here in the Commonwealth.
Like our bridges, the human infrastructure of the human services industry has been neglected for decades. The consequences of this neglect are now more evident than ever – and the ability of social service agencies to continue to provide vital services to some of our most vulnerable citizens is on the verge of collapse.
As President and CEO of Bridgewell, a large social service organization which supports over 6,000 Commonwealth residents each year, I have witnessed the damaging effects of inadequate funding for social services, resulting in staff shortages and cuts to critically important programs that provide a safety net for thousands of people in need. To ensure that existing human services agencies remain viable and prepared to respond effectively to growing needs, the Commonwealth must prioritize increasing funding now – not after the human services sector collapses. has collapsed under the weight of continued staff shortages at a time when demand for services continues to rise.
This crisis is as deadly as the collapsing bridges in our country. According to the Providers Council, the human services industry provides care for one in 10 Massachusetts residents and supports more than 180,000 jobs statewide. And the needs are great.
For example, drug overdose deaths reached more than 100,000 in our country last year – and it is estimated that one in five American adults suffers from mental illness, and 134 million people live in an area where professionals mental health are rare.
We currently have 284 vacancies at Bridgewell, including nursing positions, clinical behavioral health positions and many direct care support positions. Unfortunately, this has a significant impact on our ability to provide essential services to meet unmet needs in the communities we serve.
This staffing shortage has resulted in program closures, a significant increase in waiting lists to access services, and the inability to open vital programs to meet unmet or emerging needs.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the problem to light, but this crisis has been brewing for decades. For years, human service providers like Bridgewell have relied on the Commonwealth to develop reimbursement rates that accurately reflect the costs of operating services, including the cost of paying our staff a living wage. . We compete with companies like Amazon, McDonald’s and Target, which currently offer very competitive salaries to retain and recruit staff. Rather than pursuing careers in social services, applicants choose different career paths that offer greater potential to provide a decent standard of living for themselves and their families.
Over the years, my colleagues and I have provided testimony on the realities of operating safety net services for some of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable citizens, including the true costs of providing these services.
We often received a “thank you” from heads of state in response, but no significant change was made to the reimbursement rate, a key measure to improve agency prospects.
Despite some recent steps taken by the Baker administration and the Commonwealth to address this problem, human services – such as behavioral health and disability assistance – have been neglected for years. The human services crisis puts millions of Americans at risk, as do the 178 million life-threatening trips made each year over dangerous bridges.
As with the nation’s infrastructure challenges, funding to adequately fund our human services infrastructure must become a state and national priority.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a moral obligation to ensure that essential services are available to the most vulnerable in our communities, those who deserve quality services to help them reach their full potential.
Social service organizations and the staff who operate them save lives and strengthen communities. That is why it is crucial that our state and national leaders invest adequately in the lives of their citizens and the communities they serve.
We implore the Biden administration and Congress to create a bipartisan plan to adequately fund our human services infrastructure, putting the health and well-being of those in need first.
We are also asking the Commonwealth to add an additional $351 million to the Section 257 rate reserve, increasing it from $230 million to $581 million. Without these critical changes, human services organizations will struggle to survive and our human services infrastructure – an essential safety net for thousands across the Commonwealth and millions nationally – will continue to collapse.
It is time to fight for essential human services and for those who provide them before it is too late.
Christopher Tuttle is President and CEO of Bridgewell, headquartered in Peabody.