Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Advocates support closures if handled with care

By Jamey Dunn

While some see Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to close several state facilities as tinged with partisan politics or as a headline grabbing strategy to put the screws to state legislators over the budget, some advocates see it as an opportunity.

After Quinn announced the potential closure of seven facilities throughout the state as well as the layoffs of more than 1,900 state employees, some Republicans fired back. “Is this political payback and an attempt to ratchet up political pressure? Is that really the first place you need to go to save less than 1 percent of the budget?” Palatine Republican Sen. Matt Murphy asked of Quinn’s proposal.

The facilities Quinn said he plans to close are Tinley Park Mental Health Center, Singer Mental Health Center in Rockford, Jacksonville Developmental Center, Jack Mabley Developmental Center in Dixon, Logan Correction Center in Lincoln and Illinois Youth Center in Murphysboro. Quinn said the budget lawmakers sent him would not fund state agencies through the end of the fiscal year. He claims a shortfall of $313.5 million and said the closures would save about $54.8 million. Quinn said he is open to working with lawmakers in the fall veto session to close the budget gap, and potentially avoid some of the closures.

But advocates for the developmentally disabled say that the closure of state mental hospitals and developmental centers — if handled properly — would be a step in the right direction. In recent years, a movement has emerged to urge the state to move away from the model of large institutions and into so-called community care providers. For many individuals, that would mean moving into group homes that have far fewer residents and that could be closer to family and loved ones than state institutions. “We see this as a wonderful opportunity. When times are tough, there are some positives that can come out of it,” said Don Moss, coordinator for the Illinois Human Services Coalition. Moss said the state must take three steps to turn such closures into a positive for the developmentally disabled community. First, Moss said any residents of the facilities that may close who want to stay in an institutional setting should have an option to transfer to another facility. “We would hope that the great majority of the individuals would chose to move into the community, and we have to gut feeling that they will.”

Moss said that caring for institutionalized individuals can cost more than $150,000 a year. He said that currently, the state spends about $50,000 annually per person receiving care in a group home. He said, while shifting people to community care will result in savings, the funding level should increase to $75,000 per person.

Moss said that getting more funding for community care could be politically difficult, given the state’s budget woes, next year’s election looming in lawmakers’ minds and the power of the unions that represent the workers facing potential layoffs. “With an election next year and [the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees] being all-powerful, there may be pressure from legislators who want to keep the jobs in their district.” But Moss said “the needs of the individuals should be prioritized over jobs for state employees and over political consideration.” The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees can be expected to fight the closures and lobby lawmakers to do all they can to stop Quinn. “This course of action would be in direct violation of negotiated agreements with our union," Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, said in a prepared statement. "Moreover, it would have a dire impact on the maintenance of public safety and the delivery of services of vital importance to the people of Illinois." Bayer said that tough economic times have led to increased demands for state services, and the proposed closures and layoffs would “plunge state government into chaos.”

Moss said Quinn’s plan would also have to be undertaken gradually. “That would mean not dumping people into community programs that aren’t suitable for them or [placing residents in homes] they’re not ready for.” Moss said he thinks the state could meet Quinn’s goal of starting closures at the beginning of next year “if they begin now and plan carefully.” He said if the state rushes and floods the community care infrastructure with new clients, it would create the potential for mistakes that would set the movement back. “If there’s a series of catastrophes in the community [care] it’s going to slow down and potentially halt such movement into the community,” Moss warned. “It has to be done well or not done at all.”

Rep. Patricia Bellock, a Hinsdale Republican, agreed that Quinn’s plan could be an opportunity for those who would like to see the state’s mental health hospitals and developmental centers closed. “That is what people want. That is what the disabled community wants.” Bellock, the top Republican on the House’s Human Services Committee, said patients should be able to choose where they will go, and state funding should follow them in that choice. Bellock said that when the state closed the Howe Developmental Center in Tinley Park last year, about one third of the patients went into community care, while two thirds were transferred to other institutions. Bellock does not agree with advocates such as Moss who say that all the state’s large facilities should be closed. “I feel that there probably needs to be a couple.”

Moss said members of his community hope that Quinn’s plan is genuine and not just an attempt to twist arms over budget decisions. Social services providers, as well as those needing treatment for mental illness and developmental disabilities, have been on a roller coaster ride during much of Quinn’s administration as he has threatened substantial cuts during difficult budget negotiations, only to later roll back proposed reductions. “We have to grab hold of this situation and hope to maintain the momentum,” Moss said of Quinn’s latest plan.

Check back tomorrow for perspectives on Quinn's plan from the juvenile justice community.  

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