Sun-Sentinel: Get Disabled Children Out of Nursing Homes

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Editorial

If Pearl Buck was right, and “the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members,” Florida got a failing grade this week.

The U.S. Justice Department filed suit Monday against the state, accusing it of violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to do enough to keep children with disabilities in Florida from being sent for care to nursing homes for the elderly. The department’s lawsuit called it “deliberate indifference to the suffering” of those children.

The head of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, Liz Dudek, called the lawsuit “disruptive” and accused Washington of wanting to take over the state’s Medicaid and disability programs. Seriously?

The Justice Department says it spent six months investigating the plight of disabled kids in Florida nursing homes before calling on the state last September to do more to give their families the option of care at home or in community-based settings. The department filed suit after concluding that it couldn’t count on the state to comply voluntarily.

Dudek, in responding to the lawsuit, cited “improvements” — community or home placement for 40 disabled kids this year. Too little, too late, considering that federal investigators counted 200 children in nursing homes last year.

The blame doesn’t rest solely with AHCA; there are other state agencies named in the suit. And state legislators have slashed funding for home or community-based care. One program intended to help parents utilize either option has a waiting list of more than 20,000 names. Lawmakers put more money into the program this year, but reportedly only enough to cut the list by about 5 percent.

Meanwhile, the state actually increased reimbursements to nursing homes to care for disabled children, and turned down almost $40 million in federal funds that could have been tapped to move the kids into home or community-based alternatives. This is progress?

The Justice Department said the lack of options for disabled children left their parents “the cruel choice of fearing for their child’s life at home or placing their child in a nursing facility.” And in nursing homes, the department said, children are deprived of time with family and friends, and short-changed on social, recreational and educational activities that are vital for their healthy development.

There is no time to waste for children who are growing up in facilities for the elderly instead of at home with their families. Gov. Rick Scott, his appointees, and legislators must provide the necessary funding, oversight and commitment to right this wrong.

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