Saturday, April 23, 2011

State cuts in North Carolina threaten group homes many disabled people rely on

From The Gaston Gazette in N.C.:

After years of battling the developmental disabilities they were born with, Eric Falls (pictured) and Clint McManus have found a measure of ease in the local group home they have shared since 2004.

The quiet, stable environment with round-the-clock attention has done for the men what previous years spent living in state institutions could not. And yet a complex state funding issue may soon force them to move back into a more crowded special needs facility, despite the fact that taxpayers could end up spending more for the men’s care if that happens.

“Moving them back into an institutional level of care is not in their best interest,” said Rita Thuot, executive director of Gaston Residential Services, which oversees the group home where the two live. “If it happens, it’s going to be a true injustice.”

Falls’ and McManus’ dilemma is an example of why some 20 local family members of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities recently drove to Raleigh to meet with Gaston County legislators. They lobbied for a continuation of services that have already sustained drastic funding cuts of late, and which stand to be reduced further because of the state budget deficit.

Revised laws have made it harder for the developmentally disabled to acquire certain state funding if they are already receiving Medicaid. That has most notably affected a small group of people with specific disabilities such as Falls and McManus. They are being better served in their home communities, but are faced with being thrust back into detrimental living situations elsewhere, said Beth Haywood, clinical director of Gaston Residential Services.

“These are folks who through no fault of their own happen to have a disability, and they need help,” she said. “It’s less expensive to keep and care for them where they are now, which is where they belong.”

Falls, 45, and McManus, 40, suffer from autism, mental retardation and neurological conditions that prevent them from communicating verbally. Falls is listed as the second-oldest person in the world with Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, a genetic disorder that prevents most of those who have it from living past their 20s, Thuot said.

Both men lived in state-run facilities years ago that catered to people with special needs, but they did not do well around the large groups they had to interact with . Even being placed in a group home with five other people proved unsuccessful.

“When we started serving them in 1996, we realized they were easily overstimulated by too many noises, people and activity,” said Thuot. “We tried to find funding that would allow them to succeed in an environment where they wouldn’t hurt themselves, or be hurt.”

By 2004, Gaston Residential Services — a private nonprofit that aids people with developmental disabilities — had located funding to place Falls and McManus in a home together. And the pairing worked. They coexist well, with the help of clinical caregivers who assist them with medications and monitor them regularly.

“It’s amazing. No one ever would’ve thought it could happen,” said Thuot. “They’re quite content. They do grocery shopping, house cleaning. They pick up recycling for our organization and they participate in activities that are hopefully helping them to develop further.”

North Carolina’s efforts to control mental health care costs led to it reform its mental health system in 2003 — a move that has been widely criticized since then for its failures. Continued attempts to provide quality care more efficiently led to a change in law in 2008 that limited people such as Falls and McManus from receiving state funds if they also receive Medicaid.

Since 2008, Gaston Residential Services has spent more than $200,000 of its own money to support the two-person group home while trying to find a more permanent state funding solution, Thuot said. But it won’t be able to continue doing that after June 30.

“Our board of directors has been very accommodating to this point,” she said. “But unfortunately we are a business, and we can’t exhaust our savings.”

Caring for Falls and McManus in the group home where they live now costs $100 to $400 per person, per day. Should they have to be institutionalized again, it would cost at least $500 per person, per day, Haywood said.

Members of the Gaston Residential Services Family Support Group that traveled to Raleigh this month met with Gaston County’s five legislators in the Senate and House of Representatives. But no local legislators serve on any of the committees that are debating mental health funding.

Falls’ mother, Barbara Falls of Bessemer City, has tried to have her son live with her in the past, but has been unable to provide the care he needs. She visits him daily at his group home in Gastonia.

Lawmakers have told Barbara Falls they are trying to work out a solution for the small subset of people such as her son who have fallen through the cracks. At the very least, she has hoped some type of funding extension could be approved while a permanent answer is found.

“(Gaston Residential Services) has been great the last two years,” she said. “They carried them, but I just don’t know how much longer they can.”

She remains hopeful that someone in Raleigh will come to their defense.

“They’ve had to make cuts in Raleigh they don’t want to,” she said. “I do understand. But I also understand that we had this funding, and they took it away.”