An independent monitor says Georgia is far behind in meeting its obligations for providing community services for people with developmental disabilities.
A March 17 report by independent reviewer Elizabeth Jones criticized the state’s lack of progress in moving people with developmental disabilities out of state-run hospitals.
A Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities spokesman said in an email statement to GHN on Wednesday that the agency is “carefully considering the findings and recommendations’’ in Jones’ report.
“We will continue our efforts to deliver easy access to high-quality care that leads to a life of independence and recovery for the people we serve,’’ said the statement by DBHDD’s Chris Bailey.
Earlier this week, the Augusta Chronicle reported that dozens of “unexpected” deaths of individuals under the agency’s care occurred in community settings in 2013 and 2014.
State admits the lag
Georgia, under a five-year settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, agreed to end all admissions of people with developmental disabilities to state psychiatric hospitals. It also promised in the 2010 pact that patients with disabilities already in those hospitals would be moved to more appropriate settings by July 2015 — the deadline for the agreement’s provisions to be met.
DBHDD acknowledged in February that the state would not meet that deadline. More than 200 patients with developmental disabilities remain in state-operated hospitals.
Georgia agreed to establish community services for about 9,000 people with mental illness, and to create community support and crisis intervention teams to help people with developmental disabilities and mental illness avoid hospitalization.
But problems in the care delivered in the community living situations led DBHDD last year to stop transferring people with developmental disabilities from hospitals to community residences.
Media outlets reported last summer that almost 10 percent of the Georgians with developmental disabilities who had moved out of state hospitals since July 2010 had died after being placed in community situations.
On Sunday, the Augusta Chronicle reported that 500 patients in 2013 died in community care while under the auspices of the agency. Of those deaths, 82 were classified as unexpected deaths, including 68 deaths of people who were developmentally disabled.
In 2014, an additional 498 patients who were receiving community care died, including 141 considered unexpected, the newspaper reported.
Progress as well as problems
The independent reviewer’s report noted the state’s substantial progress in developing mental health services.
Jones, the court-appointed monitor, praised Georgia’s housing voucher program for people with mental illness. Still, the report also pointed out that the state has not met the goal of supported housing for up to 9,000 people with serious and persistent mental illness.
Georgia is much further behind in care for the developmentally disabled, the report stated. Just two patients with developmental disabilities have been transferred out of state hospitals in recent months, Jones noted.
She also reported the state had completed only four independent reviews of deaths of individuals receiving home- and community-based services waivers.
In conclusion, Jones said, “Although the state’s good faith efforts continue and there is evidence now of promising plans beginning to lead to desirable results in the attempts to reach compliance, additional time will be required to ensure sustainable statewide systemic reform for the community-based support of individuals in the target populations.”
Talley Wells, director of the Disability Integration Project at Atlanta Legal Aid, told GHN on Wednesday that the state’s housing voucher program for people with mental illness “has been a game-changer,’’ giving them stability in their lives.
But Wells also noted a tone of frustration in Jones’ report about progress for people with developmental disabilities. “This is about an opportunity to give people a meaningful life,’’ Wells said.
“Georgia has made a commitment to safely and successfully support in the community each person currently in its developmental disability institutions,’’ he said. “Georgia’s citizens with disabilities need the state to fulfill its commitment.”
And Eric Jacobson, executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, said it’s likely the state will have to renegotiate the terms of the settlement agreement regarding people with developmental disabilities.
The state is now taking a systematic approach to understanding individuals’ needs before transferring them from a hospital, Jacobson said.
If that process had occurred earlier, it could have prevented some deaths, he said.
“We’ve got to be able to build the capacity of providers in the community,” Jacobson added.