Saturday, June 27, 2009

Washington state sued over cuts to in-home care to children with Down syndrome

From The Seattle Times:

Lawyers for three children with Down syndrome have sued in federal court to stop the state from cutting the hours of in-home care they receive.

The reduction in care is slated to begin July 1 as part of sweeping budget cuts throughout the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). The plaintiffs maintain budget problems cannot legally be used as justification for cutting back the hours of care the children receive.

Caretakers for the young people — who range in age from 14 to 20 and receive Medicaid benefits — were notified last week that the state was cutting the number of hours they would be able to give their clients each month, the lawsuit says. The caretakers are paid with federal Medicaid funds that are administered by the state.

Down syndrome is a genetic chromosomal disorder that results in an array of symptoms including mental impairment.

According to DSHS, the cuts would affect approximately 3,100 disabled children and save the state about $3 million over two years.

According to the lawsuit, filed Wednesday, the plaintiffs have disabilities so severe they would be eligible for placement in state institutions if they were not cared for at home. The suit says the children's parents and guardians already save the state money by assuming responsibility for their care.

The families depend on relief by Medicaid-funded providers who come to their homes to help with the children's care, the suit says.

According to the lawsuit, the children's parents and guardians were notified by letter that each child would lose from two to seven hours of Medicaid-funded assistance per month.

Each child currently receives between 72 and 141 hours of in-home assistance each month.

"These cuts will hurt children with serious disabilities and the family that is doing its very best to take care of those children at home," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Amy Crewdson.

According to the lawsuit, the state specifically acknowledged in letters to the children's caretakers that the cuts were being made because of budget problems.

Under federal law, the state can make cuts to these Medicaid recipients only when individual assessments indicate their needs have changed and that reduced services are appropriate, according to the suit.

"The Department of Social and Health Services assessed every one of these children to determine what amount of Medicaid-funded in-home personal-care help the state would provide," said Crewdson. "Now, DSHS is cutting every child's hours, not because a new assessment was conducted or the child's needs changed, but because of the state's budget."

Kathy Leitch, assistant secretary for Aging and Disability Services with DSHS, said the cuts are an unfortunate but unavoidable result of the economic crisis that has reduced the state's budget for the next biennium by billions of dollars.

"The budget situation that the state has been facing is unprecedented, and we know that reductions in service are upsetting to consumers, advocates and providers," Leitch said.

She said the state has recognized that lawsuits might be filed in response to the cuts.

Leitch said that if the plaintiffs prevail, the state may have to cut services to other vulnerable people.

A court hearing has been set for June 29.