DD News Blog- Regulating community services for people with disabilities: a promise fulfilled or a barrier to appropriate services?

The DD News Blog

Posted Sunday, August 12, 2018

In 2014, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued “the Settings Rule” as an attempt to regulate how and where Medicaid-funded Home and Community-Based Services (HCBS) are provided in community settings to people with disabilities. Although the settings rule is promoted as a policy of liberation to bring about “true” integration and inclusion of people with disabilities in community settings, the corollary to that is the assertion that the rule will free up funding to be redistributed, first by closing programs that some advocates argue no one wants or needs, and then to pay for services that the same advocates claim are “truly” inclusive.

Many IDD advocacy groups, most notably those receiving federal funding under the federal Developmental Disabilities Act, oppose all “congregate” programs that serve more than 3 or 4 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) together. Rather than emphasizing the individual right to appropriate services and the requirement that “a public entity shall administer services, programs, and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities…” [emphasis added], many advocates promoting the Settings Rule have focused mostly on closing programs, thereby eliminating them as a choice for those who still want and need them.

To what extent is implementation of the Settings Rule improving the lives of people with IDD? Or is it just an excuse to reduce or eliminate programs for people with the highest support needs in hopes that others can benefit from the redistribution of precious Medicaid dollars?  Is it realistic to expect that the supposed cost-savings will pay for more and better services in the community? From the perspective of people with IDD and their families who are losing programs they have relied on for years, the Settings Rule is seen as an excuse to de-fund needed services.

Judging from the promises made over many decades from advocates and government agencies, that closing institutions would pay for more and better services in the community, it is highly doubtful that removing people from institutions (or from settings that are too “institutional in nature” under the Settings Rule) will generate significant savings to pay for adequate services for everyone else.

As advocates and government agencies pursue their dream of closing all institutions, as well as eliminating specialized group settings for people with disabilities, they avoid the obvious question of how much more money must be put into the system to meet the needs of people with IDD and where will it come from? It means confronting politically unpopular ideas, at least unpopular with most current elected officials, such as boosting Medicaid funding to pay for more and better services. Efforts to stabilize the workforce of direct service providers by providing them with a living wage and better working conditions and linking the funding of services with needs established by well-written individual service plans could improve both the quality of services and accountability to people with disabilities and to taxpayers.This dilemma – justifying program closures with promises of future savings to pay for community services – was recognized by a fervent proponent of deinstitutionalization Sam Bagenstos, a former Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Obama Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and a key litigator in deinstitutionalization cases. [This is the same Sam Bagenstos who is running for the Michigan Supreme Court in the November 2018 election.] In a 2010 Cardozo Law Review article, “The Past and Future of Deinstitutionalization Litigation”, Bagenstos admits that closing institutions has not resulted in sufficient services in the community to allow people with psychiatric and intellectual and developmental disabilities to flourish.

This is an excerpt from a 2013 article from VOR , “Will it be different this time? Deinstitutionalization’s Past: A Reason to Pause and Reconsider”:

First, Bagenstos argues that one measure of the success of deinstitutionalization is the sheer numbers of people with I/DD who have been deinstitutionalized and the numbers of institutions that have been closed since 1967:

“[D]einstitutionalization advocates have essentially won the old battles for the closing and downsizing of large state institutions for people with psychiatric and developmental disabilities . . . the population of state institutions now stands at approximately 16% of its peak, the population of state and local psychiatric hospitals stands at approximately 9% of its peak, and these numbers continue to decrease.”

Bagenstos goes on to admit, however, that the political alliance between deinstitutionalization advocates and fiscal conservatives meant certain failure for the advocates’ second goal, “to develop an array of services and supports in the community to enable people with psychiatric disabilities or intellectual/developmental disabilities to flourish.”

It should not be surprising that the coalition of deinstitutionalization advocates and fiscal conservatives largely achieved their goal of closing and downsizing institutions and that deinstitutionalization advocates were less successful in achieving their goal of developing community services.

Even if some deinstitutionalization advocates were initially unaware that they had entered into a “devil’s bargain” with fiscal conservatives, unconscionably, closure efforts continued even after it became apparent that widespread tragedies were befalling fragile individuals with I/DD developmental disabilities in inadequate community settings.

Supporters of the HCBS Settings Rule seem to be making their promises of improved services and better lives for people with disabilities contingent on the idea that savings from the closure and elimination of specialized congregate (group) settings in the community will result in the redistribution of funds. It is politically easier for advocates to call for the closure of programs that do not meet their criteria of “true” integration and inclusion than to confront the reality that the community system of care for people with I/DD is underfunded and to a large extent broken. Many of the organizations promoting their interpretation of the Settings Rule also get a significant amount of funding from government agencies that fund programs under the DD Act. They know better than to bite the hand that feeds them by advocating for politically difficult but necessary solutions to the crisis in community care.