State Politics

Disabled people sue over segregated living, inadequate care in North Carolina

Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights North Carolina.
Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights North Carolina.

People with developmental disabilities are wrongfully segregated in institutions or face the threat of institutionalization because of budget restrictions and inattention to their needs, an advocacy group said in a lawsuit filed in state court Wednesday.

Disability Rights North Carolina wants the state to fully fund a Medicaid program that helps people with intellectual and developmental disabilities live outside institutions, and require regional mental health offices to pay for services patients need.

“We’re not attempting to close the developmental centers or move people out of group homes,” said Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights NC. “We’re just asking that decisions be made based on what the individual needs, and the person-centered planning and adequate funding for those services.”

Five people, represented by their guardians, and Disability Rights are suing the state, the Department of Health and Human Services and Secretary Mandy Cohen.

DHHS said in a statement that it takes Disability Rights’ concerns seriously and is reviewing the allegations.

“DHHS is committed to meeting the needs of people with I/DD (intellectual/developmental disabilities) and to ensuring they have access to the services and supports necessary to help them meet their individual goals and needs,” the statement said. “DHHS takes the concerns of DRNC very seriously and will thoroughly review the allegations filed by DRNC.”

State law requires that people with disabilities receive care in the least restrictive settings according to their needs, the lawsuit says. The state is violating the law because “systemic flaws” in the health and human services system keep some people institutionalized unnecessarily, put people at risk of institutionalization and segregate people with disabilities, the lawsuit says.

About 10,000 people in the state are on waiting lists for services that will allow them to leave institutions or avoid going into one, the lawsuit says. The legislature has cut funding for community-based services, and the lawsuit said state cost-cutting is hurting people by “illegally increasing their risk of segregation and isolation.”

Disability Rights wants the state to work toward eliminating the waiting list. “Anyone who needs services to live successfully in the community, we want that provided,” she said.

Five people suing include a woman who, according to the lawsuit, has been forced to live in a state developmental center because her parents cannot find community providers who could handle her needs; two people who live outside institutions but whose services are being cut, a man who lives in a Morganton group home despite his wish to live in Raleigh near his family and a woman getting inadequate treatment in an adult care home.

The state relies on its own centers, private intermediate care facilities, adult care homes and family care homes that segregate disabled people in restrictive settings, the lawsuit said.

Regional mental-health offices don’t reliably come up with plans to get help for people who want to leave institutions for community living, the suit said, and some of the offices cut back on services they know patients need.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner