The state health agency plans to close three Eastern North Carolina offices that provide services for developmentally disabled infants and toddlers, a move that will eliminate an estimated 170 state jobs by July.
Documents obtained by N.C. Policy Watch show that budget cuts prompted the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Early Intervention Program  to call for the closure of three children’s developmental services agencies in New Bern, Rocky Mount and Wilmington.
The state agency will expand an existing contract with East Carolina University’s School of Medicine to continue providing services to families in the 21 affected counties, according to a Feb. 10 strategic plan  written by Dr. Robin Cummings, the state’s acting health director, and obtained by N.C. Policy Watch.
ECU already has a contract with DHHS to provide early intervention services for several counties in the Greenville area.
A question and answer document provided to staff emphasized that services would not be interrupted for families.
“Services for infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families will continue, and again, we want that to be as seamless as possible,” the DHHS advisory to employees stated.
The upcoming closures in New Bern, Rocky Mount and Wilmington will mean job losses for 173 DHHS employees, who were informed Wednesday about the closures. The new ECU contract is expected to create 150 jobs that laid-off workers are encouraged to apply for, but don’t have any guarantees of being hired, according to DHHS documents.
The state currently has 16 child developmental service agencies (CDSAs) around the state (click here  to see locations), that assess and provide services to children under the age of 3 with developmental delays. All but four of the CDSAs are state-run.
The three soon-to-be closed offices provide services to families of disabled babies and toddlers in 21 eastern counties – Bladen, Brunswick, Carteret, Columbus, Craven, Cumberland, Duplin, Edgecombe, Halifax, Johnston, Jones, Lenoir, Nash, New Hanover, Northampton, Onslow, Pamlico, Pender, Robeson, Sampson and Wilson counties.
Cummings, in his memorandum  to early intervention staff, said services in the 21 affected counties will be shifted to Greenville because of continued budget cuts from state leaders coupled with a state government hiring freeze that leaves therapist and staff positions vacant.
The state budget passed last summer called for $18 million  in cuts over two years to the federally-mandated early intervention program that screens an estimated 10,000 children a year at 16 children’s developmental service agencies statewide. Additional services, such as physical and speech therapies, are also provided to children that have developmental delays or other issues that threaten cognitive health.
The program is facing $10 million in cuts for the fiscal year beginning this July.
“The program has, however, experienced multiple reductions in state appropriations over the last several years and will sustain another very substantial reduction in 2014-15,” Cummings wrote.
He added, “State and contract CDSAs are all doing very well in serving infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families; the only discernable difference between them that we find is that contract CDSAs are able to have a much lower vacancy rate,” he wrote.
Deborah Carroll, the head of the N.C. Infant-Toddler Program, referred questions about the closures to DHHS communications office.
DHHS’s communications staff, had not returned phone calls by Monday afternoon seeking comment about the early intervention office closures.