Ray Duckler: Following the missing $20 million from HHS; gone today, here tomorrow

Last modified: Saturday, September 19, 2015
Kellie Denoncourt, the guardian of two nonverbal adult sisters lost in emotional darkness, doesn’t want to hear excuses.

All she knows is $20 million, money recently lost then found by the Department of Health and Human Services, money that could have been used to help, among others, the sisters who live with Denoncourt in Concord and suffer from developmental disabilities, was misplaced.

And that means someone, somewhere should be held accountable.

“I was very irate,” Denoncourt told me this week by phone, when asked to summarize her emotions. “To me, that wait list of 140 people, there would not be a wait list if they had used that money.”

Usually, it’s missing money never found, oftentimes embezzled funds, that causes a big stink. Not this time, though.

News of this buried treasure surfaced last Monday, first reported by the Monitor’s Allie Morris, and now we’re left wondering what happened.

Sifting through the debris of an institution like HHS, with its 11 district offices and hundreds of accounting units and 170,000 clients, would leave the heads of Woodward and Bernstein spinning.

What is clear, however, is that developmentally disabled people did not receive the attention they deserved because millions of dollars that could have gone toward services temporarily took a hiatus.

Fingers are pointing, some at the statewide nonprofit agencies responsible for providing services. Meanwhile, the giant bureaucracy governing all of this, the buck-stops-here state agency that oversees important tasks such as this one, HHS, has nothing to say.

Not commissioner Nick Toumpas, and not Lorene Reagan, the bureau chief of developmental services. My messages to those two executives were not returned.

Busy people? For sure, but in this instance, someone should have come forward and taken the heat, tried to explain, taken a bite from a piece of humble pie.

Meanwhile, not everyone is willing to let the effect of this gaffe slip through the cracks, like the $20 million did.

“I think it is absolutely a travesty,” Amy Messer, the incoming executive director of the Disability Rights Center, told me by phone. “It breaks my heart when I hear about people who are going without critical services.”

According to Messer, there’s the single-income mother who will be forced to quit her job because her daughter, once she turns 21, will be on the wait list, with no immediate services available.

And there’s the 33-year-old man with autism who wants to work once he leaves the hospital but has nowhere to go, and will be placed on the wait list while hoping to receive supportive day and residential services he so desperately needs.

And then there are the two sisters living with Denoncourt and her husband, neither of whom is equipped to do the job much longer. Or, really, at all.

The women allegedly were abused while growing up. Their grandmother, suffering from Parkinson’s, moved into a nursing home, but not before asking the Denoncourts, whom she had met at church, for help.

The Denoncourts agreed, but were not aware of all the disabilities involved, which included autism spectrum disorder, severe social anxiety, moderate to severe intellectual disability and post traumatic stress disorder. Neither woman speaks.

State law mandates that funding be allocated for services such as transportation, counseling and job training for developmentally disabled individuals within 90 days once they turn 21.

One sister at the Denoncourt home is 22 and eligible, the other 20 and on the doorstep of care.

But try telling that to Denoncourt.

“Our situation was supposed to be temporary, a year at the most,” Denoncourt told me in an email. “Two and half years later, we have very little to show, except for the blisters on our feet because of all the meetings and running around we have done to move things forward for these girls. We cannot provide these girls with the services we need.”

Denoncourt had harsh criticism for Concord-based Community Bridges, one of 10 agencies, separate from any government branch, that is contracted by HHS to provide care.

The agency formulates a budget and HHS must then approve it and, if needed later, reallocate funds. Community Bridges, according to Denoncourt, lacks compassion and sensitivity.

“I’ve always gotten the runaround with them and had trouble with them in the past on different levels of communication,” Denoncourt told me. “Problems with staffing, with not doing what they promised would happen, dropping the ball.”

Roy Gerstenberger is the executive director of Community Bridges. I asked him if he follows the statute and provides care in a timely matter.

“We’re well aware of those requirements,” Gerstenberger told me, “and we meet those requirements.”

So now we enter the blame game for why $20 million went MIA. Are the independent agencies to blame, organizations like Community Bridges? Or is it HHS?

It depends, of course, on whom you ask.

Denoncourt, after citing Community Bridges’ indifferent attitude, turned to both sources when she said, “We are not trained or equipped to manage (the sisters’) needs. Community Bridges and the state of New Hampshire know this. They (both) have been told on many occasions. Their response is always the same: ‘There is no more budgeted funds, so here’s a free pen.’ ”

I asked Cathy Spinney of Pelham, who sits on the board of an agency in Atkinson called Community Crossroads, the equivalent of Community Bridges. Spinney said a woman, Karen Kimball, was an accounting “wiz” who recently left HHS and has not been replaced.

Kimball had run a tight financial ship. Could her exit be the problem?

“She had 25 years experience,” Spinney said. “I’m questioning the efficiency and accuracy of the bureau’s accounting of the funds. A significant expertise was lost.”

I asked Messer of the Disability Rights Center, who spread the blame around, but noted that HHS is responsible for monitoring the agencies that spend the money.

“The ultimate responsibility lies with the department,” Messer said. “They contract with area agencies to make sure services are put in place, and they need adequate oversight in place to see that it happens properly.”

Then I asked Gerstenberger, who needed some coaxing before admitting that the pipeline between the state and organizations like his needs fixing.

“If it was managed differently, I think more services would have been made available,” Gerstenberger told me. “I think we need to do a better job.”

So does Denoncourt, a guardian who sure could use some help.

“That’s a $20 million mistake,” Denoncourt said, “and that hurts a lot of people.”

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter