Thursday, January 8, 2009

Star Ledger: Assemblyman proposes closing five institutions for developmental disabled

Assemblyman proposes closing five institutions for developmental disabled
by Susan K. Livio/The Star-Ledger
Thursday January 08, 2009, 6:00 AM
Five of the seven state institutions for people with developmental disabilities would close within five years and the money now spent on them would be used for community housing under a bill a prominent lawmaker is expected to announce today.
Assembly Budget Chairman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden) expects a fight from state labor leaders, which represent nearly 8,000 workers, and families who prefer the around-the clock care provided by the developmental centers.
Mitsu Yasukawa/The Star-LedgerAssemblyman Louis Greenwald (D-Camden), chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, speaks in June 2008.
But he says there are compelling moral and economic reasons to "radically restructure" the way the state spends money on people with developmental disabilities.
"We are warehousing human life," Greenwald said Wednesday. "We pride ourselves on being a progressive state in health care and science, but New Jersey is so far behind other states in this area. Every other state has closed 140 institutions, and New Jersey has not closed one in 10 years."
Greenwald said the state can no longer afford to support seven institutions, where it costs about $227,000 to house each of their 2,900 residents. He estimated community care would cost less than half of that amount.
"In the economic crisis, we face an opportunity to change failed public policy," Greenwald said.
The facilities, funded by the state and federal governments, cost $384 million in a year to operate, according to the state Department of Human Services.
Under Greenwald's bill, two centers -- one in north Jersey, the other in south Jersey -- would remain open to accommodate the people who want to stay.
The state Division of Developmental Disabilities has moved 176 developmental center residents to community homes over the past two years, division spokeswoman Pam Ronan said. State officials support the bill's concept, "but we are currently reviewing each provision."
State Human Services officials say there are roughly 2,400 people living at institutions who are willing and able to move to community housing.
Reaction to the bill was mixed. Families, advocacy groups and labor leaders said they were stunned by its ambitious scope.
Robin Sims, whose 25-year-old daughter with autism is living happily at Hunterdon Developmental Center, said the bill "shows no respect" to families like hers.
"Why don't they ever talk to the people it affects?" Sims said. She said she has seen some people leave Hunterdon, only to have their medical and psychological conditions regress because community-based care is lacking.
Joseph Young, executive director for Disability Rights New Jersey, which sued the state on behalf of people who want to leave institutions and 8,000 others living with families who are on a waiting list for state-funded housing, called the bill "an incredibly ambitious program.
"Whether they can logistically do it I have no idea, but clearly they are headed in the right direction," Young said.
Don Klein, executive vice president for Local 1040 Communications Workers of America, said the bill appears to be a stunt to save money at the expense of fragile disabled people.
"In our facilities, the residents get occupational therapy, physicians, dentists -- the whole array." The bill is "an assault on these folks," he added.
Norman Reim, spokesperson for the state Council on Developmental Disabilities, praised Greenwald "for taking this on and looking for a long-term strategy."
Reim, however, said the savings may not come right away, noting that when the state closed the North Princeton Developmental Center in Montgomery 11 years ago, a lot of the money was plowed back into creating community services. "You won't reap the savings until a centers is closed, until the last person leaves," he said.
The bill would create a 17-member Community Services Planning Council for Persons with Disabilities responsible for drafting the plan within six months to phase out the five centers and move willing and able people into community housing. The council would be comprised of state officials, advocacy group members, housing provider agencies, families, union leaders and professional experts.
Within five years of the law's enactment, 80 percent of the developmental center population would be placed in the community.

Ari Ne'eman
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network