One of the foremost nonprofits serving the state's residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities, Easterseals New Jersey is in the midst of a series of virtual meetings with lawmakers in Trenton, this month and next, to try and garner support for two key initiatives.

The first, Easterseals' day habilitation program, provides daytime services and recreational activities for disabled adults, but a 25% cut in funding plus the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic have led to the permanent closure of four of what had been nine facilities.

Those nine locations combined served more than 500 people, raising concerns about the viability of smaller organizations that run similar services.

Jacob Caplan, Easterseals NJ advocacy manager, said the last year Easterseals' day habilitation program ran in full, it operated at a six-figure loss — which is obviously not a sustainable business model over time.

"We really have come to a point where it's now or never, if this program is going to continue in the future," Caplan said.

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Easterseals is asking the state for a 15% increase in funding, meaning $30 million in state money that would also qualify for a federal match.

Caplan said the camaraderie built by those involved in day habilitation would be sorely missed, to say nothing of the more general health benefits.

"They enjoy the people that they get to hang out with, they make friends, they get to engage in their community, so we want to be able to continue to operate this program, but we're going to need additional state support," he said.

With regard to telehealth, Caplan said Easterseals supports current legislation that would require telemedicine systems to include accessible communication features for those with disabilities.

He said the population his organization serves has really embraced virtual appointments.

"We've seen our no-show rates for appointments drop by as much as 50%, based on where they used to be for in-person services," Caplan said.

Just like with New Jersey schools, there is a bit of a digital divide for those who don't have the best internet or device access possible, but in this case, it hasn't been the state that's closed the gap.

"In our space, it's really providers who have stepped up to help cross that barrier and ensure accessibility," Caplan said.

Easterseals' "Advocacy Weeks" continue in April, with another round of online discussions scheduled with state legislators to try and settle on solutions.

Patrick Lavery is New Jersey 101.5's afternoon news anchor. Follow him on Twitter @plavery1015 or email patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com.

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