A top state official is offering to extend a $774,000 grant for Chattanooga-based TEAM Centers Inc. through June 30, 2012, so the provider has more time to pursue alternative funding for diagnostic and treatment services it provides to people with intellectual disabilities.
"I'm probably going to give them another year," state Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Jim Henry told the Times Free Press on Thursday. "The Legislature can do what it wants to, but we're probably going to extend this grant."
Local state lawmakers from Hamilton County have been asking questions about the defunding. Earlier this week, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, confirmed he was trying to work out an agreement but declined to discuss details.
TEAM Centers' interim executive director, Peter Charman, said Thursday that after Henry's interview with the Times Free Press, the commissioner called him and "told me the grant would be extended through the current fiscal year."
Charman said the nonprofit group's board later discussed the offer by telephone and will weigh over the next few days whether it can accept the offer.
The program is slated to end a week from today, and parents whose children are being helped are upset and angry about the situation.
"What we're interested in is what's best for our patients and for our employees," Charman said.
The board and TEAM Centers officials plan to sound out employees, some of whom already have indicated they have found other work, as well as parents and local legislators who have gotten involved in the issue, Charman noted.
Parents contacted Thursday evening were hopeful about the news.
"Sounds pretty credible to me," said Jennifer Bryan, a Cleveland, Tenn., mother to Caleb, a 9-year-old who suffers from autism. "Parents have been pressing every government person, from local to state, pleading with them. It's a relief."
State officials planned to eliminate continued funding for the grant after discovering it as part of Gov. Bill Haslam's "top to bottom review" of state government operations.
Henry said TEAM Centers officials were told they were reducing funding to three months to give the agency time to apply to provide at least some of the services through traditional Medicaid fee-for-services in the home-and-community based waiver program as well as through community fundraising.
"That's why we gave them the three months," said Debbie Payne, Henry's assistant commissioner of community and facility services.
But TEAM officials opted instead to pay off current salary commitments and shutter that portion of their operations.
"It wasn't feasible to try to do any of those things that quickly, and we're not sure it would have economically been helpful at all," Charman said Thursday.
Henry expressed frustration over recent Times Free Press articles and a Times editorial that criticized his handling of the matter.
He said the grant was unusual in nature and perhaps began as a pilot project in 1998 when services for intellectually and developmentally challenged children were handled by the then-Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation.
More than 98 percent of the successor agency's funding is for adults and not children and that is generally spent on the most medically intellectually disabled and medically fragile people, Henry said.
Usually, funding is handled through traditional Medicaid fee-for-services contracts, the commissioner noted. In fact, TEAM Centers has a number of contracts with the state to provide services.
An examination of the TEAM Center's funding last month showed officials were using the grant to pay for salaries and benefits and other administrative costs, Henry said.
"We don't pay for overhead, we pay for services," Henry said.
Charman said the "people that provide the diagnosis and evaluation services are licensed clinicians. Those are the salaries it's paying."
Henry argues the state could be using the $774,000 grant in other ways that would allow the state to obtain two-for-one federal matching funds at a time the state is hard pressed for funds.
It is unclear exactly how many people TEAM Centers treats. Since the defunding announcement, Charman initially cited 2,700 children and adults. Henry takes issue with that, saying he believes it is about 1,200 people over a two-year period, or about 600 a year.
Asked about Henry's figures Thursday, Charman said he believes the number of people served is at least 1,200 to 1,300, and likely more.
Sandy Lusk, wife of Signal Mountain Mayor Bill Lusk and mother to a 14-year-old son, Kyle, with autism, said parents worked the issue hard and thanked local legislators for their involvement.
She called the services "an issue that matters to everybody and doesn't have party lines."
"We all care about our children first," Lusk said.