Politics & Government

Federal government says NC is shirking its agreement to help mentally ill people with housing and jobs

The federal government is asking a judge to enforce a legal agreement the state made to provide community housing and employment services to mentally ill people living in adult care homes.

The state agreed in August 2012 to provide housing for 3,000 mentally ill people by 2020, and supported employment for 2,500 by 2019. The state entered into the legal agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to avoid getting sued for violations of federal laws that require states to provide services to disabled people in the least restrictive settings. A federal investigation found that the state was segregating people with serious mental illnesses in adult care homes when they were capable of living independently with mental health services and help finding and keeping jobs.

The federal Justice Department filed the motion on Jan. 9 in U.S. District Court, asking the court to enforce the agreement. The motion said it expects lawyers for the state to object.

The motion is part of an ongoing dispute between the federal government and the state over the agreement, which set out yearly goals for housing, treatment and employment for people with mental illnesses.

Federal lawyers had warned the state Department of Health and Human Services for more than a year that it’s not complying with the agreement. Former state DHHS Secretary Rick Brajer countered that federal government was undercounting people moved to independent housing.

DHHS was contacted Wednesday about the Justice Department’s motion, but had not responded to questions by deadline.

In its court filing, the U.S. Department of Justice said the state started redefining terms of the agreement in 2014, reporting not just people in housing, but adding information on homes and apartments that were available but unoccupied. In January 2015, the state stopped identifying in required reports only apartments and homes that were occupied.

Last year, the state began counting people outside the “target population,” people with severe mental illness in adult care homes or at risk of moving into one, in its counts of people receiving employment help, the federal complaint said.

The state is trying to “diminish its obligations” by changing how to measure compliance, the federal lawyers wrote.

By any measure, the state is not hitting targets set out in the agreement.

The state had filled 650 housing slots July 1, 2016, short of the 1,166 required, and 708 supported employment slots, short of 1,166 set out in the agreement, the federal complaint said.

The state’s difficulty meeting goals shows how hard the work is to accomplish, said John Rittelmeyer, director of special litigation at Disability Rights NC.

A complaint by Disability Rights NC led to the federal investigation that resulted in the legal agreement. Rittelmeyer said Disability Rights is not taking a position in the dispute over how to quantify services provided.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner