Friday, December 25, 2009

Federal government says budget cuts violate the civil rights of North Carolinians with disabilities

From The Charlotte Observer:

RALEIGH, N.C. -- The federal government said in a legal filing Dec. 23 that state budget cuts to programs that help people with mental illness and developmental disabilities live on their own violate the individuals' civil rights.

The advocacy group Disability Rights North Carolina sued the state Department of Health and Human Services in federal court earlier this month over the cuts, which slashes state money that helps the disabled pay for home health care, rent and other expenses.

That lawsuit got a boost Wednesday when the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief supporting the case, asking a federal judge to issue an injunction against the state.

Disability Rights filed the case Dec. 11 on behalf of Marlo M. and Durwood W., two N.C. residents who rely on state services to live in their communities rather than an institution. Their last names are withheld in the legal filings to ensure their medical privacy.

A preliminary hearing in the case will be held in U.S. District Court in Raleigh on Monday.

Renee McCoy, a spokeswoman for the state Health and Human Services department, said Wednesday she could not comment on pending litigation.

Durwood W., 49, has lived in his own apartment for 10 years as the recipient of federal and state dollars called Thomas S. funds, named after a class action lawsuit that successfully challenged the lack of services for people with both intellectual disabilities and mental illness. Marlo M., 39, has also lived in her own apartment for more than five years supported by federal and state dollars.

Though legislators exempted Thomas S. clients from most of the severe cuts in the current state budget, lawmakers did not make preserving such services mandatory. Local community mental health agencies have enacted further cuts and restrictions.

The Beacon Center, the local mental health management agency for Edgecombe, Greene, Nash and Wilson counties, is the agency making the service cuts affecting Durwood and Marlo, who require access to 24-hour-a-day care to live in their apartments.

In its lawsuit, Disability Rights argues that the loss of these state-funded services will probably result in their relocation to an institution, such as a state mental hospital or group home, thus violating the Olmstead decision.

In that landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that unnecessary institutionalization of individuals with disabilities is a form of discrimination under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Advocates hope a favorable ruling could prevent others from facing similar cuts.

In its brief Wednesday, lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department wrote that North Carolina's lack of protections for Thomas S. funding violates federal law, and that it would cost taxpayers even more to care for them in an institution.

The Justice Department has also recently filed briefs in support of similar Olmstead cases in Florida, Connecticut, Virginia and New York.