Early Intervention speech pathologist Megan Sanders works with 2-year-old Aria...

Early Intervention speech pathologist Megan Sanders works with 2-year-old Aria Faulkner at parents Lindsey and Kendrick Faulkner's home in Peoria, Ill., Aug. 15, 2023. Credit: AP/Ron Johnson

When young children are in need of special services, including physical, occupational and speech therapy, time is of the essence. 

The sooner a child starts such therapies, the more likely they could make a difference. And children who are in need of such legally-mandated services, known as early intervention, but don't get them, suffer when their developmental delays and other concerns go unaddressed. Ultimately, that results in even higher costs in educating and caring for those children down the line. 

Yet, in Nassau County, 200 children remain on wait lists for preschool special education. And hiring therapists has become extremely challenging because the county's reimbursement rate remains extraordinarily low — $40 per half-hour, a level that hasn't increased since 1999 and is among the lowest in the state. Consider this: Children who received services at that rate in 1999 are now in their late 20s.

Early intervention therapies are funded through county health departments, which then receive partial reimbursement from the state. Suffolk County pays at a rate of $45 per half-hour — though that, too, hasn't increased in decades.

But Nassau's even lower rate is making it far more difficult to hire therapists and provide the services children require. This is not a new problem, and service providers have been clamoring for a change for two decades.

Now, Nassau County has the opportunity to make that change happen. Legis. Siela Bynoe is proposing to use some of the county's federal pandemic relief money to boost early intervention funding, suggesting it falls under the umbrella of “educational recovery.”

She's not wrong. Many preschool-age children now need even greater attention and more services because they may not have gotten what they needed as infants and toddlers during the pandemic. Boosting early intervention therapies would be a valuable use of pandemic funds that, to date, have been earmarked mostly for the county's general fund — or for side projects like Nassau's 125th anniversary celebration.

Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman says the state should shoulder the responsibility and foot the bill, arguing that the county is already carrying its share. This is the same county executive who said his holiday wish was for the state to “stay out of Long Island.”

Certainly, the state has a role to play. Gov. Kathy Hochul is proposing a statewide 5% pay rate raise for early intervention services. That's a good start. County officials and those with the New York State Association of Counties argue that early intervention shouldn't fall under the county's jurisdiction, as it's an educational issue. And it's worth considering and evaluating alternative models for funding and other states' best practices, to determine whether New York's way of handling early intervention could be improved.

But right now, funding such therapies is a county function. Nassau County must not absolve itself of its responsibility to its youngest, most vulnerable children.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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