COLUMBUS, Ohio — A federal judge has signed off on a settlement agreement in a four-year legal battle over how and where Ohioans with developmental disabilities live.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Columbus in 2016 by Disability Rights Ohio and other advocates on behalf of people with disabilities, accused the state of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.
It said Ohio was operating a services system that made it impossible for thousands of Ohioans with developmental disabilities to get the support they need to live and work in their communities instead of residential “institutions” known as intermediate-care facilities, or ICFs.
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The negotiated settlement approved late last week by Judge Edmund A. Sargus, Jr., expands access to the Medicaid waivers that pay for community-based services and says the state will direct $24 million to housing assistance over two years.
The agreement also includes assurances, in response to concerns from families who say their loved ones are best-served by ICFs, that the state will not try to cut off funding to those centers or force anyone to move from them.
“At Disability Rights Ohio, we have always believed that this case centers on meaningful choice,” said Kerstin Sjoberg, executive director of Disability Rights Ohio. “When people with developmental disabilities ask for help and are given no other option but to live in an institution, away from their families and friends, that is segregation. This settlement is designed to address that by improving class members’ access to community-based supports.”
At the same time, Sjoberg said, advocates understand that many families want to be sure that ICFs remain.
“We don’t want to tear down services,” she said. “We want to build them up.”
In a prepared statement, the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities said the agreement “maintains and expands existing initiatives and provides waiver funding without harming the ICF program, ICF funding or a family’s right to choose an ICF for their loved one.”
Though the lawsuit detailed the frustrations of Ohioans unable to obtain one of the Medicaid waivers that pays for community services — many people had been on waiver waiting lists for years — it also spurred fears that ICFs were being targeted for closure.
Dozens of guardians of people with disabilities living in residential centers joined the legal fight and spoke out in court. They were unable to reach a settlement in the case.
In an emailed statement on behalf of the families, known as “guardian intervenors” in the court documents, they said the agreement directs millions of dollars toward moving people from their preferred service options, such as ICFs and facility-based work and day programs.
“Contrary to DRO’s assertions, this settlement is about removing care options from people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD),” the statement provided by parent Caroline Lahrmann said. “That is why it was opposed so vehemently by DD families.”
Gov. Mike DeWine’s call for steep budget cuts caused by the coronavirus pandemic make the state’s assurances all the more important, they said. “Families will not forget the state’s solemn commitment to the court and to ICF residents — people who are arguably Ohio’s most vulnerable citizens.”
© 2020 The Columbus Dispatch
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