The Justice Department says Virginia is not being serious enough about efforts to comply with court-ordered reforms to its program for people with disabilities.
A letter to the federal judge overseeing a 2012 federal settlement, sent by the Justice Department last month, points as evidence to the way the state has used proceeds from the sale of state-run institutions that treated people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Under a 2014 Virginia code adopted as part of the state’s efforts to help people being moved out of those institutions to adapt to life inside private group homes or regular community settings, money from the property sales is meant to go toward providing more services for that population.
But the state gained zero dollars for disabled residents from the $5.4 million sale of a shuttered institutional site in Chesapeake, Va., this year, the Justice Department said.
Instead, the money was used to cover a reduction of that same amount in the budget of the Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services, the agency in charge of disabilities programs in Virginia.
Relatives and advocates for the disabled say they fear the state might do the same if it finds a buyer for the site of another institution — the 78-acre Northern Virginia Training Center near George Mason University that has been assessed at $24 million.
“If there’s not any assurance that the funds will go back into expanding services, that’s obviously a big concern,” said Rikki Epstein, head of the Northern Virginia chapter of the Arc, a national nonprofit group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. “That is the whole purpose of the DOJ settlement agreement: to expand community services for people with disabilities.”
Maria Reppas, a spokeswoman for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, said the $5.4 million transfer was “a one-time action” over which her agency had no control.
State budget instructions from the General Assembly, she said, ordered the department to use the proceeds from the Chesapeake sale to make up what the department had lost in its general fund appropriations for fiscal 2015.
Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said that because the trust fund money was removed, the General Assembly has increased the department’s overall funding by a total of $60 million.
“We have taken those dollars and they have been used in those areas of services as required by the settlement,” Jones said.
Northern Virginia lawmakers said they plan to seek a better mechanism to ensure that proceeds from the land sales are kept in the state trust fund set up for that purpose. “We have to play it straight with these folks,” said state Sen. Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington).
Virginia is among the last states in the country to initiate reforms under a 1999 Supreme Court ruling that requires people with disabilities to be moved out of government institutions and into community settings.
Since the state entered into the 2012 settlement agreement, officials have relocated into private group homes nearly half of the 1,118 people with disabilities who were living inside its five state-run “training centers.”
Another 17,000 disabled Virginians who did not live in the training centers are also affected by the court settlement, which calls for making it easier for all people who are either receiving state aid or on the wait list for that assistance to integrate into community settings.
Last month, a court-appointed independent monitor of the reforms said Medicaid waivers provided by Virginia do not adequately cover the costs of treatment and living expenses for the disabled, particularly in expensive Northern Virginia.
The monitor said the state has dragged its heels in implementing a redesign of its Medicaid waiver system that would increase the reimbursement rates. He also said that the state isn’t providing enough new Medicaid waivers to meet the needs of a growing population of people with disabilities in Virginia. There are nearly 10,000 people on a wait list for those vouchers.
Debra Ferguson, commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Sciences, declined to be interviewed for this article. But she said in an e-mailed statement that “the department is committed to implementing the settlement agreement in a thoughtful and deliberate manner” and is working to redesign the Medicaid waiver system to better address residents’ needs.
In the meantime, local governments say they’ve been forced to shoulder much of the burden of providing disability services. Fairfax County — home to the largest number of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the state — spends about $11.5 million per year on those services. County officials say they’re lobbying state lawmakers to guarantee that the proceeds from the sale of the Northern Virginia Training Center go toward offsetting some of those costs.
The county also is seeking to partner with potential buyers of the site to create a mixed-use development that would incorporate services for disabled or elderly residents. The training center, which houses 56 people, is scheduled to close in March.
“Money from any sale needs to go into funding community resources to handle the influx,” said Sharon Bulova, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. “Already, it’s challenging for us to meet our existing needs.” She called the transfer of $5.4 million from the trust fund to the state agency budget “just plain outrageous.”
Barbara Hill agreed to move her cousin, Kenneth Wilson, more than 100 miles away to a facility in Waynesboro, Va., in 2013, when he was transferred out of the Northern Virginia Training Center after living there for 25 years.
Wilson, who was epileptic and had severe cerebral palsy, died of a heart attack less than a month later, Hill said. He was 49.
“The people who make the decision to move these clients, they really don’t know what’s in their mind, and how a move like that would affect them,” Hill said.