How the Department of Human Services is supporting Pennsylvanians with disabilities | Coronavirus | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

How the Department of Human Services is supporting Pennsylvanians with disabilities

On Tue., April 8, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services held a press briefing focused on how the state has and will continue to prepare people with intellectual and physical disabilities for the effects of COVID-19. Representatives from the Office of Developmental Programs (ODP) and the Office of Long-term Living (OLTL) provided updates on changes made to their programs and shared how they're supporting people with disabilities through the pandemic.

"This is a vulnerable population of people who already face unique challenges in a world where accommodations for the disability community are rarely won without a fight. The COVID-19 pandemic is a new battlefield for people with disabilities," said Secretary of Human Services Teresa Miller. "The Wolf Administration and the Department of Human Services are working proactively on behalf of people with intellectual, developmental, and physical disabilities to ensure that their rights to life, health, and safety are protected as fiercely as everyone else’s."

The ODP serves around 56,000 people of all ages with intellectual and developmental disabilities and autism across Pennsylvania. The OLTL focuses on people with physical disabilities and/or people who are dually eligible for medicare and medicaid, serving over 450,000 Pennsylvanians.


ODP deputy secretary Kristin Ahrens says this population is especially vulnerable to the virus because they have a higher likelihood of a condition like diabetes that would make them more susceptible, but also because it's a population that often relies on care, making social distancing difficult. Ahrens says that before the stay-at-home orders were in place, ODP looked at the needs of people they serve and began moving some at-home services online and canceling community activities.

Both the ODP and OLTL have begun offering support provided remotely, as opposed to at home or at a facility, and prepping the system for respite for caregivers who might fall ill. The offices are also preparing for the possibility of relocating people and providing services in unexpected locations like hotels.

Both offices have also made changes to "allow expansion for when family members may be compensated for providing services and the redeployment of direct-support professionals."

OLTL deputy secretary Kevin Hancock says the office has been focusing on making sure people who needed adult day services like meal delivery or personal assistance were getting the care they need with the shifts in the system. He also noted that eligibility and enrollment for OLTL and ODP programs has continued, with operations moved online, including home visits that would normally be a part of applications.


With some hospitals forced to provide triage on which patients with COVID-19 to devote resources to, people in the disability community have expressed concerns about what might happen to them should they fall ill.

Miller, Ahrens, and Hancock all noted this bias against disability as an important concern during the pandemic response. Ahrens noted that for the first time, the ODP has an agreement with the federal government to cover support for people with intellectual disabilities with autism, so that a care professional can be with a patient and help them understand their medical situation.

On March 30, Gov. Wolf made a statement asserting that there would be equal treatment for COVID-19 patients, regardless of their background or identity, including those with disabilities.

"I will not tolerate discrimination in allocation of lifesaving resources based on any factor including, but not limited to age, disability, and socioeconomic status to Pennsylvanians seeking medical care in our commonwealth," said Wolf.

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