By Christine Hunsinger, Second Vice President
This is a brief overview of the happenings at the Bureau of Blindness & Visual Services (BBVS) and its parent agency, the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) as of June 1, 2019.
There are four topics in this short update from PCB’s Advocacy and Government Affairs team.
First, OVR has named a new director. OVR has had an Acting Director since about June of 2018. Shannon Austin, who had been the District Administrator of the Pittsburgh BBVS Office for the past 2 years, was named the Director of OVR effective May 26, 2019. As you may recall, BBVS has also been without a permanent director since July of last year. Hopefully, this OVR hiring means that we will soon be able to go from an Acting Director of BBVS to a job announcement and then selection of a Director of BBVS as well. Shannon has experience in both the OVR and BBVS areas here in Pennsylvania. She brought several innovative programs to the Pittsburgh BBVS office during her time there.
Second, we hope that we are getting close to putting to rest the topic of combining all services of OVR and BBVS as a cost-cutting measure for now. A work group that included Representatives from the Client Assistance Program, PCB, several other blindness stakeholder groups, and outside rehabilitation experts put together a paper explaining why we think that blindness services should not be combined with the general OVR services. We expect that this paper will be presented at the OVR Board meeting on June 13 to reinforce this opinion to all decision makers. In support of our position, we used evidence from University studies, a letter from Governor Ridge explaining the rationale he used when moving BBVS from the Department of Public Welfare to the Department of Labor and Industry in 1999, Anecdotal information from several states demonstrating better work outcomes for people being served by employees specializing in blindness-related services instead of generally-trained employees, and a letter of expert testimony from Dr. Fred Schroeder, a former head of the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA). Once the questions started coming from legislators, stakeholders, and members of consumer groups, the Department of Labor and Industry said at every opportunity that there was no such consolidation plan currently being considered. The question was brought up at the meeting of the Pennsylvania Rehabilitation Council and will also be brought up at the Advisory Council of the Blind of Pennsylvania on June 12 so that we are sure to have notified all concerned about our position on this issue.
Third, because of a budget shortfall in OVR, it has been proposed that Order of Selection be closed on July 1, 2019. What this would mean is that if you don’t already have an open case with BBVS by July 1, 2019, after they take your information and determine that you could qualify for vocational rehabilitation services, you will be put on a waiting list. We don’t have any information about how long this might last. Because this would be a change to the Combined State Plan for Pennsylvania, public meetings were required to be held about the Proposal and were held on May 22. Comments were taken by the Department of Labor and industry until June 4. They then sent this information to the federal Administrators at RSA for approval. By the time you read this article changes possibly influenced by public comment will have taken place.
The final information that we are presenting is an update on the survey that PCB sponsored to obtain people’s opinions on the good and bad of BBVS services. While we work toward an in-depth report of findings for our fall newsletter, we can report some quick observations from the initial data. We received 85 responses to the survey. As we looked at the responses, we noticed several items which we expect to bring to the attention of BBVS Administrators. Many people didn’t get documents in a preferred format when they were sent information from BBVS. Although we know that the appeals process language including instructions to ask the Client Assistance Program for help if appealing a BBVS determination are in the correspondence, People didn’t realize that they had been given that information. This may be a result of not getting correspondence in a preferred format. Around half of the responses indicated that people didn’t recall being told about consumer groups which might be able to give them support during their journey to employment and through the changes involved because of vision loss. More than half of the responses indicated that those completing the survey didn’t feel that they had input when employment plans were being written. More than a quarter of those completing the survey felt that they were steered in a direction chosen by BBVS counselors. Forty percent of those completing the survey said that they underwent an evaluation process to determine the practicality of their vocational goals. Seventy-seven percent of those completing the survey said that they waited more than four months from the initial contact with BBVS before having meaningful conversations with staff who could help them achieve their vocational goals. Since we got completed surveys from folks served by all BBVS offices, we will also be looking to see if some offices consistently got a higher satisfaction rating from the clients who completed the survey
The Advocacy and Governmental Affairs team worked on additional items in this quarter, but we felt that writing an article about the issues surrounding BBVS were a more important task for this edition of The PCB Advocate. Please continue to read our emails and listen to the announcements on the PCB Information Line for additional advocacy news and needs.