Despite Protest, Panel Votes to Cut Budget for Disabled Services

By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2006

A D.C. Council committee has cut the proposed budget for the city's mental retardation agency by nearly $15 million, saying that there is still no "credible plan" to improve care for group-home residents -- and that the District is losing millions of dollars because it hasn't set up services that could be paid with federal funds.

Ignoring a last-minute warning from Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) that the cuts would imperil services and reform efforts for the long-troubled agency, the council panel Friday unanimously approved a budget of $61.5 million for fiscal 2007, instead of the $76.4 million requested by the mayor.

The proposed cuts at the Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Administration, which the full council will now consider, would be in funds for housing and residential services provided at about 360 group homes.

"The council has been left with no choice except to draw the line" on spending, said Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), chairman of the council's Human Services Committee. He complained that the agency had overspent its budget by $16 million and had not given a clear explanation about where the money was going.

Even with the reduction, he said, the agency still would get an increase of 10 percent over its current budget.

The mayor released a statement late Friday urging the council to reverse the committee's decision.

"These cuts are irresponsible and represent a step backwards," Williams said. "The reductions may even result in the District being held in contempt of court . . . not to mention a risky interruption of services for some of our city's neediest residents."

The committee's other members, Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), lamented the slow pace of systemic reform at the agency and said they were trying to impose a measure of accountability. They left the door open to approving additional funds once the agency improves its operations.

"This agency is in intensive care," Barry said. "The council has to take this tragic action to send a message."

The District has come under fire repeatedly for its failure to provide safe care for residents with mental disabilities, many of whom also have severe physical disabilities. The city is a defendant in a long-standing lawsuit alleging poor care, and a federal judge has been pushing for improvements.

In a letter sent to Fenty before the vote, Williams said cuts in residential services could compromise reform efforts and possibly "drag the agency" into court-ordered receivership.

Arthur M. Ginsberg, president of the D.C. Coalition for Community Services, which represents contractors that provide services to D.C. residents with developmental disabilities, said, "I can't believe the council doesn't have another way of trying to improve government operations, other than withholding money."

Marsha H. Thompson, administrator of the mental retardation agency, said it is making critical changes to provide better, safer and more independent living arrangements for group-home residents.

"The monies we pay out every day are not for frivolous things but are for direct services for people who need health care and equipment, and the homes," she said.

One issue driving the committee's action has been the District's chronic failure to take advantage of available Medicaid funding for many of the services it now provides with city funds.

Known as the "Medicaid waiver," the federal funds are earmarked for community-based services as an alternative to Medicaid-funded institutional care. The federal government pays 70 percent of the costs of support services such as transportation and home care.

Advocates for the developmentally disabled say every state has managed to qualify for the funding, getting the federal government to pay a big portion of the costs of letting those with mental disabilities live with family members or in apartments.

The District and a special task force of providers and advocates for the disabled worked for months last year to rewrite regulations that would permit federal reimbursement for these alternative services. Thompson said she hopes to have an outside consultant on board next month with expertise in the waiver and its fiscal impact. She is working with the city's Medical Assistance Administration to create more services that qualify for federal reimbursement.

"We're trying to offer them even though we don't yet have the federal dollars to pay for them," she said. "We're using local monies. That's a huge part of the costs."

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