Five Questions With: Tina Spears

Tina Spears is the executive director for the Community Provider Network of Rhode Island, a Warwick-based organization that represents multiple providers of services and support to individuals in Rhode Island with developmental disabilities.

Recently, CPNRI was recognized by the Rhode Island Foundation with a 2019 Best Practice Award for Advocacy for leading the Stable Workforce, Stable Lives public education campaign to support increased state funding for direct-care providers.

Spears spoke with PBN about the campaign and what upcoming initiatives CPNRI will have for 2020.


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PBN: Kindly explain, what is the Stable Workforce, Stable Lives campaign?

SPEARS: The campaign included community forums, developing and releasing six advocacy videos, producing a policy brief outlining relevant data and priorities, and publishing an advocacy guide to prepare new leaders for meetings with policymakers. These activities are examples of the robust community organizing and advocacy strategy that CPNRI developed and implemented to address the workforce crisis.

To accomplish its goals, CPNRI further activated member agencies’ networks for strategic events, and formed partnerships with disability-focused organizations to establish the Disability Rights Action Coalition.

PBN: What led to the campaign’s creation?

SPEARS: Honestly, a crisis. The workforce crisis in the health and human services sector, particularly for workforces that provide Medicaid-funded services, is real and impacting individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities getting support services to live in the community.

My network providers decided they could no longer “work around” the issue or create a solution for the problem without active engagement with our community and policy leaders. This led to a strategic focus on partnership and education about the real crisis individuals, families and community providers were facing to meet the needs of Rhode Islanders with disabilities.

PBN: What initiatives will be supported with the increased state funding as a result of the campaign?

SPEARS: The administration and the General Assembly infused $9.6 million in general revenues to increase wages for the direct support professionals that support Rhode Islanders with intellectual and developmental disabilities living in the community. This resulted in a 91-cent wage increase for DSPs. This was the largest increase workers have received in over a decade.

PBN: Will there be further advocacy for community programs when the discussions about the state budget start again?

SPEARS: Yes, absolutely. The gains for our DSPs were appreciated and undoubtedly will help this segment of our workforce. However, we are still at a critical point to address the underlying structural problem related to the Medicaid rate structure that has not supported the operations of community-based providers and the cost to provide  commensurate wages to the skilled workforce necessary to provide quality services.

This has translated into a diminishing of available services statewide, which of course has had the devastating effect of limiting access to these vital services for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families. We hope to redesign our Medicaid rates to support the true cost of providing services and maintaining competitive wages. We will be advocating to see further investment in fair and equitable compensation, similar to what is seen in Massachusetts and Connecticut. This will not only benefit our dedicated workforce but will have a direct positive impact on the I/DD community.

PBN: What are CPNRI’s upcoming plans or initiatives for 2020?

SPEARS: We are currently in the planning phases of our actions this upcoming year but have a few areas I can speak to. We will continue the campaign Stable Workforce, Stable Lives and work with our community to keep the momentum and focus of our state leaders to solve our workforce crisis.

In addition to our immediate educational campaign to address the needs of our workers, we want to create an educational campaign about inclusion. Inclusion of persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities in our community is our No. 1 priority. Our network will partner with our community to champion policies and programs that directly support inclusion of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live fully inclusive lives in our communities.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at

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