SOUTH PORTLAND — Employees and clients of Residential and Community Support Services rallied outside state offices Monday to protest the decision last week by the Department of Health and Human Services to terminate its contracts with the provider following a death this summer.

Angie Marquis, director of clinical, crisis and intakes for Biddeford-based RCSS, said the state’s decision will shut the company down, forcing 370 people out of their jobs. She also said the impact will be devastating to the more than 60 adults with intellectual disabilities who are under RCSS care and will have to move.

One week ago, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services notified RCSS that it was severing its Medicaid agreement with the for-profit provider for failing to keep its residents safe. The state also terminated a separate contract for emergency transitional housing.

The decision was spurred by the Aug. 27 death of Norman Fisher at a Portland home managed by RCSS, one of 38 the company operates throughout southern Maine. Although the state did not identify Fisher, 62, citing confidentiality requirements, Christine Tiernan, the CEO of RCSS, confirmed last week that it was his death that prompted the state to investigate the provider and eventually terminate its contract.

DHHS officials have said problems went beyond one incident and also have stressed that RCSS had an opportunity to make improvements after Fisher’s death and failed to do so.

RCSS has appealed the state’s decision and has threatened to file a lawsuit. On Monday, more than three dozen staff members and clients protested outside DHHS offices in South Portland, holding signs that read, “DHHS fails people with disabilities,” and “This is what a scapegoat looks like,” and “DHHS, why are you doing this?”

Marquis began the event by asking for a moment of silence for Fisher, followed by another moment of silence “for all dependent individuals who pass away in residential programs and in the care of the state of Maine.”

Deborah Bafongo, who started at RCSS as a direct care worker three years ago and is now a supervisor, said the state’s decision threatens the safety of clients.

“RCSS has always been about client freedom and this decision does not respect their rights to live where they want,” she said.

Tasha Pomelow, who said she has been a client of RCSS for the last year, credited the company for helping her immensely.

About 40 Residential Care and Support Services employees protest across the street from the Department of Health and Human Services office in South Portland on Monday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“DHHS should leave us alone,” she said. “We don’t want to move.”

RCSS has claimed that the state is responsible for Fisher’s death because he was under state guardianship. Tiernan, the company’s CEO, said last week that Fisher was dropped off at the RCSS home on a Friday from the hospital without insulin needed to treat his diabetes. He then refused care, Tiernan said, and state officials did not intervene.

Fisher’s death is under investigation by the Portland Police Department.

The state has not answered specific questions about Fisher’s death, citing privacy laws, but has defended its decision to cut ties with RCSS and said it’s working to find placements for the clients who will be moved.

“Our top priority remains the well-being of RCSS residents whose lives have been endangered and disrupted by the company’s repeated failures to ensure their health and safety since we ended new admissions two months ago,” DHHS spokeswoman Jackie Farwell said in a statement Monday. “RCSS could have avoided the current circumstances – we offered multiple opportunities to improve and they failed to do so.

“We invite the company to consider all of its options to better serve clients moving forward. In the meantime, we will follow the longstanding appeals process that RCSS accepted when it became a MaineCare provider.”

Farwell also said the Maine Department of Labor is ready to provide resources to RCSS employees affected.

Marquis said all but 20 employees are direct support professionals who provide care to clients anywhere from 150 hours per week to 336 hours per week.

All of RCSS’ funding comes from MaineCare, the state’s version of Medicaid. RCSS is reimbursed $27.72 for every hour of care up to 168 hours per week per client, and $24.80 per hour after that.

Marquis said she’s not hopeful that the state will reverse its decision.

“We believe the system needs to change. We agree the system has needed to change for many, many years,” she said, adding, “but if this is the standard DHHS wants to uphold, they should do it for everyone.”

Disability Rights Maine, an independent nonprofit that advocates for intellectually disabled adults under a state contract, has defended the state’s decision to cut ties with RCSS.

“Disability Rights Maine certainly takes issue with the state of Maine regarding various policies, practices and procedures impacting the lives of our clients – we file complaints against the state, we negotiate regularly with state actors and, when necessary, we sue the state,” the organization said in a statement Monday. “In response to the decision by the state of Maine to cease contracting with RCSS, and in light of today’s earlier public protests, DRM reiterates that we remain pleased to see that the state is taking its oversight obligation seriously.”

Other advocates and service providers last week said that RCSS and the state share responsibility for Fisher’s death, which is the latest case to expose flaws in how Maine cares for adults with intellectual disabilities.

The state has made reforms in recent years, some in the wake of a scathing U.S. Inspector General Report that examined the system from 2013-2015 and found deficiencies in reporting critical incidents and in investigating deaths. The most recent change, initiated by the current administration, adds a licensing requirement for one and two-bedroom homes. That process that is ongoing.

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