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

Thomas Mangrum, an advocate for people with disabilities, is among those who those who worry about the District’s plans to end a long-standing partnership with Georgetown University.
Thomas Mangrum, an advocate for people with disabilities, is among those who those who worry about the District’s plans to end a long-standing partnership with Georgetown University. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Backlash intensified this week to the D.C. government’s effort to end a 14-year-old partnership with Georgetown University that provides a range of medical and social services for people with disabilities.

The District’s Department on Disability Services has announced that it will end its contract with Georgetown in August, moving the services currently offered by the university in-house or replacing them through another contractor.

City officials say the move has been in the works for years and will maintain the same services now offered while shifting some costs to the federal government.

But the decision has sowed panic among advocates and at least some disabled District residents, who say the city is squandering the relationships and expertise that Georgetown has built over more than a decade. After hearing those concerns at a well-attended hearing this week, D.C. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) said she will ask Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to extend the contract to allow for a smoother transition.

“I am very concerned, and the hearing certainly didn’t satisfy all of my concerns,” Nadeau said. “We’re talking about a system of care for incredibly vulnerable residents which has been in place for 14 years that is now going to be changed into something different. And we have to ensure that everybody who is impacted is completely prepared for that.”

D.C. Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage said Thursday that the Bowser administration stands by the agency’s decision.

“Sometimes people hear a contract is ending, and it involves people who have intellectual disabilities, and they assume you’re going to cut health-care services to the most fragile people in the city,” Turnage said. “And that is completely untrue.”

The dispute over a minor contract — Georgetown is paid approximately $1.4 million annually by the city, less than 1 percent of the disabilities services agency’s $173 million budget — has been magnified into a broader debate about the city’s progress in caring for its most vulnerable residents.

Advocates fear end of Georgetown partnership could harm disabled D.C. residents

It is a resonant issue in Washington, where people with intellectual and developmental disabilities have endured a long history of neglect and mistreatment, first at the notorious Forest Haven asylum and then at dangerously mismanaged group homes. It was only two years ago that the District was released from federal oversight as part a decades-old class-action lawsuit brought over substandard treatment of disabled residents.

Georgetown University, through a health initiative at its Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, was a key player in the improvements that ultimately ended that litigation. A team of medical professionals and social workers at the university aids disabled residents through a range of supports, such as helping hospital patients obtain the care and discharge services they need or offering guidance for new parents.

University officials said that they work annually with more than 800 residents with intellectual or developmental disabilities. Ricardo Thornton, who was committed as a child to Forest Haven and met his wife at the facility before it closed, said Georgetown provided vital coaching in parenting skills he never learned while institutionalized.

“People like me, who have disabilities, who needed guidance and needed training on how to raise my son — they gave me tools that would help them,” said Thornton, a 60-year-old District resident. “There’s a lot of families that depend on Georgetown for that kind of outreach.”

Those concerns have been echoed by many who work with disabled people. Eight former directors of state agencies for those with developmental disabilities wrote to Bowser last week protesting the move.

Tina Campanella, chief executive of the Quality Trust for Individuals with Disabilities — a nonprofit advocacy and monitoring group that was established as part of the settlement of the city’s disabilities lawsuit — said the move caught the community of advocates and service providers off-guard.

“There was not good community engagement around this,” she said. “We’re very alarmed that the providers have expressed that they’re dependent on [Georgetown], and they’re not feeling confident that any plans that have been proposed for the future will be adequate to support them.”

Andrew Reese, director of the Department on Disability Services, said in an interview that the agency had repeatedly disclosed its plans to shift the services currently provided by Georgetown before the backlash built this summer.

“I think on some level people just did not believe that we were actually following through with this, because they had been our long-standing partners,” he said.

They are speaking up for those who can’t — and they’re worried

Reese said all of the services offered by Georgetown will continue, either through city employees or under new providers. Some of those providers are qualified for a greater rate of reimbursement under Medicaid.

A doctor also has been hired under contract to provide medical consultations, Reese said.

“Everything is in place so this transition should happen smoothly, and everyone who requires these services will continue to get them starting in September,” he said.

Critics say the agency did not adequately plan for a transition and is now scrambling to catch up. The new doctor, for example, was hired only this month, after the explosion of complaints from advocates. And the agency released a written transition plan just last week, after Nadeau called a hearing to look into the issue.

“We remain concerned that the piecemeal, inadequate and rushed approach to their transition plan will result in real harm to some of the District’s most vulnerable residents,” Tawara Goode, director of Georgetown’s Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, said in a statement.

Robert Dinerstein, director of the Disability Rights Law Clinic at the American University Washington College of Law, said concerns over the change reflect a broader unease with the D.C. government’s ability to independently provide support for disabled residents.

In addition to the services Georgetown provided, he said, the university was “another set of eyes and ears” to ensure that the city’s bureaucracy didn’t backslide.

“In this long, 40-plus-years history of court involvement, I could understand why the agency and the District might want to say, ‘We don’t want people looking over our shoulders,’ ” Dinerstein said.

He added: “They’re kind of saying, ‘Trust us, we know what we’re doing.’ And I think what came out of the hearing is that there are a lot of people that have concerns about that.”

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