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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Disabled clients left in lurch after Washington state ends contract with job rehab program

Michael Ball, a 23-year-old  employee at Walmart, lost his state-sponsored job coach suddenly lost month when officials terminated their contract with a private company. Ball wants a job at Walmart as a cashier or a stocker, but without the job coach his mom, Michelle, rear, worries he won't get a foot in the door. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Michael Ball hopes his professional future doesn’t end at the rear of a line of shopping carts.

The 23-year-old Walmart employee had been working with a job coach to leave the pushing behind. A permanent position at a checkout stand, stocking shelves or selecting groceries for online shoppers were all preferable to the job he’s had for two and a half years. But Ball lost his job coach, Kim Staehli, in the middle of August, becoming one of dozens of clients with disabilities who were caught in the crosshairs of a clash between a state agency and the private company providing the help.

“He was so devastated,” said Michelle Ball, Michael’s mother, in an interview at the family’s Spokane Valley home last week. “It’s just sucking the life out of him again.”

Michael Ball described his last few weeks as “hell.” A lack of oxygen during childbirth resulted in delayed intellectual abilities, and his mother says he has an IQ of 69 (a score of 90 to 110 is generally considered average). He receives disability benefits, but also wants a job to break up the monotony of playing with his train set or long hours of Minecraft at home.

Michael Ball was a client of a company called Compass Career Solutions. The company is reaching out to its customers, as well as state and federal lawmakers, in an attempt to reverse the decision of the state’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation to end its contract with the firm. Compass operates in 12 counties statewide, and the decision affects services at all locations.

State officials cited the company for failing to receive certification for its staffers to provide certain services, including teaching financial planning and how to take the bus to work. The company counters that those services make up a small portion of its work on behalf of clients with disabilities, who are now waiting for local branches of the state agency to find new coaches with a different provider.

Michelle Ball said the local office has worked “as slow as molasses” to get her son a new coach. A part-time care provider whose husband died of cancer 11 years ago, she has spent hours trying to find a replacement for a job coach the family believed had been doing a good job. Meanwhile, Michael Ball has returned to cart collecting without someone to advocate for a position he’d prefer.

“Jackie went to the interview. She built a resume for him,” Michelle Ball said of her son’s job coach with Compass, before Staehli. “She went above and beyond her job.”

The state agency informed Compass of its concerns on Aug. 10 when it suspended a single portion of the company’s contract not dealing directly with job recruitment or replacement. Five days later, after reviewing a list of providers and their credentials, the agency terminated the entire contract, a decision it upheld in a letter sent to the office Friday.

“Suspension of a contract is not a new thing for us,” said Rob Hines, director of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which is part of the state Department of Social and Health Services. “It happens from time to time, and it’s unfortunate when it does.”

Robert Efford, chief executive officer of Embassy Management LLC, which operates Compass, said the state’s actions were heavy-handed.

“We’ve been doing this for over 25 years,” Efford said. “They’re hanging us on stuff they’d given us no advance warning about. You have to scratch your head.”

In addition to the certification issues, the state also said that, based on an investigation, it appeared Compass had violated confidentiality for a client, inflated its billing hours, hadn’t disclosed employment issues a client was having with their offices and requested certain official forms be back-dated, all claims that Efford denied.

As further evidence of issues with the company, Hines pointed to the decertification earlier this year of one of Embassy’s companies, an in-home health care provider, after two of its clients died. Another home care firm under Embassy’s umbrella, Aacres, was fined $2,400 by the state in June for violations of patient care requirements.

Efford said Compass had spun off as its own entity long before the fines and the decertification process began with another of Embassy’s companies, and also noted that DSHS’ own facility in Buckley, Washington, lost certification and Medicaid funding due to reports of substandard care.

“That has nothing to do with this,” Efford said of the decertification.

Hines’ decision is final, Efford said, and now the company will ask clients like the Balls and Julia Lynch, a 45-year-old with cerebral palsy living in Clarkston, to appeal to the state office to retain their job coaches.

Lynch’s Compass coaches had landed her an interview with the Red Lion in Lewiston, a job that didn’t pan out. She’d been working toward a job at Costco, and finally met with a representative of the local office of the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation on Wednesday, she said this week. But a follow-up visit isn’t scheduled until mid-October.

“You have to have the income to get the bills paid,” Lynch said. “I don’t think they think about that. I’m not one of those people to just stay home.”

The department reported assisting more than 9,000 people with employment services in 2016, the most recent year for which data is available. More than half of those served by the agency received some form of Social Security or disability benefits.

Hines acknowledged that the agency’s decision to terminate the contract would cause hardship for some. But he said he’d only personally received a half-dozen phone calls from customers upset about losing their coach, and noted there are 139 other providers statewide that can assist those like the Balls and Lynch to prevent disruption of services.

“I’ll be working to make sure that we’re redoubling our efforts with those staff to make sure they have access to other providers, and make decisions about whether they want to work with them or not,” Hines said.

Efford said the quick action by the agency, without a clear path to a new job coach, was a disservice to the people the program serves. Compass will have to consider downsizing its footprint across the state, especially in rural areas, for other services the company offers as a result of lost funding through the state, he said. That includes rehabilitation programs and job placement for people leaving prison.

“We’re not perfect. Ninety-five percent of the time, we do a hell of a job,” Efford said.

Meanwhile, the Balls are waiting for someone to be Michael’s champion at his job once again.

“Nothing’s going to get done if I just wait,” Michelle Ball said. “Meanwhile, Michael’s still at work, not having an advocate for him.”