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

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Days before Laura Nuss left her position as the longest-serving director of the D.C. Department on Disability Services, a judge led a courtroom in a standing ovation for her.

That judge, who presided over a long-standing class-action lawsuit against the troubled city agency, then went further. She credited Nuss with contributing to the agency’s turnaround and helping to bring the lawsuit closer to an end.

That happened in 2016.

I am telling you about it now so you understand the significance of this: Nuss knows well what it takes to run DDS — and she is worried.

Worried enough that she spoke to me recently about why she believes a decision by her successor, the current head of DDS, to end a contract with Georgetown University is “incredibly shortsighted.”

“To carte blanche cancel the contract is just irresponsible,” she said. “The risks to the people who are supported by the District just go up exponentially.”

Shortsighted. Irresponsible. Risks. Those are not easily flung words. They are also not the only weighty ones people have used in recent days to express their concerns that the agency’s decision to end a 14-year partnership with Georgetown will harm residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

I generally cringe at the phrase “voice for the voiceless” because too often it is used to describe people who have long been talking, sometimes screaming, and just weren’t being heard. But in the past few weeks, across the city, there has been a powerful display of what that phrase means in the most literal sense: People who would normally not speak out against DDS are publicly questioning the agency’s decision, aware that many of the individuals who stand to lose the most by it can’t do that for themselves. Some can’t verbalize at all.

In a column earlier this month, I shared with you the concerns two of the city’s disability service providers expressed after learning that the contract would end on Aug. 31 and that DDS had no plans to renew it.

Those who work with disabled D.C. residents fear a city cut will hurt those who need help most

Those providers, which depend on DDS for work, described the services that Georgetown offered through its Health Initiative program as wide-reaching and critical.

Under the $1.3 million contract, Georgetown employs a physician, two nurses, two psychologists, two home visitors, a public health analyst and a health educator. They handle 4,000 consultations a year and offer disabled residents services that include sexuality education and parenting support.

One of the most crucial services Georgetown offers comes when disabled adults end up in the hospital. A physician shows up to help make sure that person’s medical needs are met, and a nurse works to get that person home as soon as possible.

The providers said they have come to rely on knowing that whether they call the Georgetown staff at night or on the weekends they will find help.

They questioned who, once that staff is dismantled, would fill that role.

In the days since that first column was published, even more people have expressed concern. They have made phone calls, posted blog items and written letters to officials.

They have also asked again and again: What’s the plan?

On July 23, they may get some answers — or at least get to speak directly to members of the D.C. Council.

The council would normally be in recess at that time, but Councilmember Brianne K. Nadeau , who chairs the Committee on Human Services, arranged to hold a joint public roundtable on the issue with Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who chairs the Committee of the Whole.

“The Committees would like to better understand how these services will be transitioned away from Georgetown and how the agency intends to ensure there are no gaps in the provision of services,” reads the public notice. “The Committees invite the public to testify or to submit written testimony.”

“We’re just trying to get answers,” Nadeau said. She said her office has heard from disability advocates and others who say they are worried. “I am also concerned.”

Andrew Reese, who heads DDS, said that he expects to be able to publicly release “a very specific plan” detailing how the agency will cover the services Georgetown provided by the roundtable and possibly as early as Friday.

“The most important thing to understand is that while it is true that there may be some changes in the vehicle we use to deliver particular services, none of the services we provide to people are ending,” he said.

Some of the services Georgetown provides, such as parenting support and sexuality education, he said, will be handled through Medicaid waivers. He said the hospital services the physician and nurse provide will be handled through a different contract.

“We are making sure that same level of support will be available to people,” he said. “While I understand people’s concerns, because change is upsetting, as we move forward, high-quality services will be in place for everyone we support, and we will probably be able to provide those specifics very shortly.”

He praised Georgetown for having been “a tremendous partner over the years.”

Nuss went further when speaking about the Georgetown program.

She credited it with helping the agency get out from under 40 years of court supervision that resulted from a lawsuit brought by six individuals in 1976 and named for lead plaintiff Joy Evans . That same federal judge that led the standing ovation for Nuss ended that court supervision in January 2017.

In recent weeks, people have expressed concerns that the loss of the Georgetown contract would cause the agency to slip backward.

“It’s just incredibly dumbfounding,” Nuss said. “I don’t think it is well thought out, and I think it is going to have really negative consequences for people.”

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

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