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Are you listening, Mayor Bowser? The District’s disability community is hoping you are.

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), shown in May 2018, is being urged to preserve a disability-services contract that the city has with Georgetown University.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), shown in May 2018, is being urged to preserve a disability-services contract that the city has with Georgetown University. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“They will be hurt. Their families will be hurt. They will die.”

“Continuity of care will be compromised and people will develop secondary conditions, or worse. That is not hyperbole.”

“I am deeply concerned about the risks.”

District residents with disabilities and those who advocate for them have not held back in recent days. In testimony at a D.C. Council hearing and in letters to lawmakers, they have used strong, clear language to explain why they are worried that the city agency charged with helping residents who have intellectual and developmental disabilities has made a decision that might do the opposite — harm them.

The quotes above are from three of the dozens of statements that the council has heard or received in writing.

When I first told you that people were troubled that the D.C. Department on Disability Services (DDS) had decided not to renew a contract with Georgetown University — which has served residents with disabilities for 14 years through its Health Initiative — only a few individuals I spoke to were willing to publicly put their names alongside their concerns. Several people asked to speak off the record.

After that column ran, I didn’t plan on writing about the issue again. But then the former head of the DDS, who had helped pull the agency out from under court supervision, agreed to share her perspective and called her successor’s decision to end the partnership with Georgetown “shortsighted” and “irresponsible.”

And now, what started as a whisper is at a roar. With the contract set to end in a month, people are talking and pleading and tweeting. There is even a hashtag that recognizes a common goal: #BringBackTheContract.

For hours, people spoke at a hearing that council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) held on Tuesday, during a week when the council would normally be in recess. People who couldn’t be there sent emails and letters. Those will continue to be collected until Aug. 6.

Backlash intensifies over D.C. plan to end disabilities services contract

Taken together, the statements that have been made so far reflect this: a fear that the city’s most vulnerable residents will suffer without the Georgetown program, a distrust of the transition plan that the DDS released days before the council hearing and the hope that Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is listening.

People are calling on the mayor to do what the council doesn’t have the legal power to do and what it appears the DDS won’t: Restore the Georgetown contract before it ends on Aug. 31. In their statements, many requested that Bowser extend the $1.39 million contract for at least a year to ensure that a solid transition plan is put in place.

“Mayor Bowser needs to act now,” Bob Williams, a longtime disability activist who uses a communication devise to speak, said at the hearing.

“This places the District at risk of the very backslide Mayor Bowser publicly promised would not happen,” Phyllis Holton of Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities said during testimony.

She referred to the statement Bowser made in 2017, after the city finally improved its disability services enough to see the end of a class-action lawsuit that had lasted 40 years: “We’ve achieved the milestones that the court set out, but also we continue our commitment to maintain those investments, leadership at the Department [of Disability Services] and improved services for our residents.”

“I hope you will convey to the Mayor that this action . . . is unwise, irresponsible, and not worth the cost — and that you will not support it,” Eve Hill, who was the first director of the District’s Office of Disability Rights, wrote in a statement she read and submitted to the council. “We’ve come so far. We must not go back.”

Hill also said, “I have been a disability rights advocate since 1993, and in that time, rarely have I seen an administrative decision so drastically miscalculated as the one before us now.”

Are you listening, Mayor Bowser?

D.C. must not backtrack on its improvement in care for people with disabilities

Andrew Reese, director of the DDS, has defended both the decision to not renew the contract and the agency’s transition plan. He has said none of the services Georgetown offers will end.

The transition plan calls for city employees to handle some of the services and for Medicaid waivers to cover others, such as parenting support and sexuality education. The agency has also hired a doctor through a separate contract.

The Georgetown staff consists of a physician, two nurses, two psychologists, two home visitors, a public health analyst and a health educator. Together, they handle about 4,000 consultations a year, including helping people who are hospitalized receive the medical care they need and return home as soon as possible.

But listing those services captures only a part of what people are afraid of losing. In their statements, they not only lauded the Georgetown program, but they also spoke of staff members by name.

“Erica comes to help me with my health & wellness,” reads one handwritten letter that was submitted to the council. “She helps me calm down when I’m mad. . . . She helps me with my daughter who has special needs by helping me with phone calls and writing letters for Christmas gifts. . . . I will be sad and cry because I won’t have anyone to talk to if she can’t come to see me.”

In his statement, Gary Glover said he has “some very serious health issues” and has received support from the Georgetown staff for years.

“I don’t just talk to Erica about relationships and I don’t just talk to Lisa about my health,” his statement reads. “I can talk to either of them about anything and they will listen and advise me. They don’t just work with me; they treat me like a friend. If I lose their support because this contract ends, I will lose a great deal.”

Are you listening, Mayor Bowser?

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage told my colleague Peter Jamison on Thursday that the Bowser administration stands by the agency’s decision.

I tried to get a statement directly from Bowser. On Friday, her office referred me back to Turnage’s office.

The DDS may, in fact, have an adequate transition plan; it may be able to offer the same level of services as the Georgetown program; and no one may get hurt. But the people who understand the stakes best because they depend on those services or work with those who do or have long fought for the rights of those directly affected are not yet convinced — and, considering what’s at risk, they aren’t asking for much.

They are asking for the mayor to listen to them.

Read more by Theresa Vargas:

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‘The American healthcare system has just, quite literally, ruined my future,’ a disabled Georgetown student tweeted. Then she got a reprieve.