Key post on disability services now vacant

Georgia’s plan to help institutionalized people with disabilities receive services has been stalled, consumer advocates say.

The man in charge of that disabilities plan has left the position, and no replacement has yet been named.

William Janes won praise from advocacy groups while serving as Georgia’s “Olmstead Coordinator’’ for about 16 months, until his departure earlier this month.

The coordinator’s job is to develop a state plan to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Olmstead ruling of 1999. The ruling, which came in a Georgia case, said states must provide appropriate services for the disabled in the most integrated setting possible. Unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities is a form of discrimination, the ruling said.

Janes was appointed to the position by Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2009. In an interview, Janes said Gov. Nathan Deal, who took office early this year, did not reappoint him. Janes said his departure was not a resignation, but that without a reappointment by the governor, he felt he could not fulfill his duties.

Because he was not reappointed, Janes said, his status was diminished. “I couldn’t do the job,’’ he said. But Janes did not criticize Deal or his staff.

“Georgia needs an Olmstead coordinator now more than ever,’’ Janes said this week. That’s because Georgia’s settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over the mental health system pertains only to people with mental illness and developmental disabilities, he said.

In the DOJ settlement, Georgia agreed to specific targets for creating housing aid and community treatment for people residing in, or at risk of admission to, the state’s long-troubled psychiatric hospitals.

Atlanta Legal Aid Society attorneys say the DOJ agreement does not affect disabled residents of nursing homes who could be living in their communities. Nor does the settlement affect many people with physical disabilities, many children with disabilities, and Georgians with brain injuries, the attorneys said. They added that the number of institutionalized people needing community services reaches into the thousands in Georgia.

“The [DOJ] settlement agreement is very important, a significant step forward, but it is not comprehensive,’’ Janes said.

Efforts to implement the DOJ agreement and the Olmstead ruling should be integrated, Janes said. “We need to talk about all disabilities, about nursing homes, about individuals at risk of institutionalization,” he said.

Janes added that there’s a mistaken belief among some Georgia officials that the DOJ agreement covers the state’s Olmstead obligations.

Brian Robinson, a spokesman for the governor, sent an email to Georgia Health News addressing the issue of replacing Janes: “There will be an individual who will take over the necessary duties. . . . Those duties will be covered,” Robinson said.

Janes was an Army colonel and then an official of Florida’s government prior to his Georgia job.

Under his leadership, a draft plan for how Georgia would comply with the Olmstead ruling was submitted last year. Janes was instrumental in bringing together state agency officials, medical providers and consumer advocates to forge that plan, said Talley Wells, director of the Mental Health and Disability Rights Project at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.

Now, Wells said, “I think [the plan] is heading nowhere.’’

The Legal Aid attorneys point to Harold Anderson of Austell as an example of how Olmstead should be carried out in the state. Anderson, 61, was a resident of a nursing home for six years before receiving services in the community through the help of Legal Aid.

“I have my life back,’’ says Anderson, who uses a power wheelchair. “Right now I’m in good shape.’’

Dawn Alford, a transition coordinator for Disability Link Northwest in Rome, praised the effort behind the draft Olmstead plan. She said the current lack of an Olmstead coordinator is worrisome.

“Many young people and children are institutionalized in nursing homes,’’ Alford said. “I’m afraid the entire effort will go away. It’s just heartbreaking.’’