Ohio school districts are getting a raw deal for providing mandated services to students with disabilities. They are spending money on such services for special education students for which they are reimbursed just partially, late or not at all. The costs are piling up. At a time when districts are struggling to stay afloat financially, state education and Medicaid officials have every reason to move swiftly to resolve difficulties with the Medicaid School Program.
Under federal laws governing children with disabilities and individual education plans (IEPs), Medicaid reimburses schools to provide a range of services to eligible students, including nursing, psychological services, physical, speech and occupational therapies, aides and transportation. For years, the payments in Ohio flowed through a state-created vehicle, the Community Alternative Funding System. The system ran afoul of federal paperwork and compliance requirements and was shut down in 2005.
Districts still had to serve special education students out of their own resources until the state could set up another program to oversee reimbursements. It took until 2009 to get the Medicaid School Program up and running with fewer services and more stringent oversight. Meanwhile, the Akron Public Schools, for instance, was spending $500,000 a year on services. The state has been slow in reimbursing not only the 2005-2009 costs but also costs that have accumulated since 2009, an estimated $50 million. As Doug Livingston, the Beacon Journal education writer, reported on Monday, Akron has spent about $5 million the past eight years on special education services that could have gone into instruction.
Further, the state chose to limit reimbursable services under the repaired program in 2009, excluding some expensive but necessary services that would be eligible for Medicaid reimbursement, for example, nursing aides and transportation.
In districts across the state, budgets have been slashed to the bone while a variety of state and federal mandates suck up available funds. Ohio could ease the burden by expediting reimbursements for special education, providing more funds upfront to cover services instead of having schools submit end-of-year reports and wait for payments.