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Looming group home crisis becoming political football

Posted October 25, 2012 5:44 p.m. EDT
Updated October 25, 2012 6:42 p.m. EDT

— The prospect of thousands of disabled residents being forced from group homes across North Carolina in January has led to political finger-pointing.

The state for years applied different standards for people to qualify for personal care services, depending on whether they lived at home or in an adult care facility. The services help disabled people with everyday activities, such as eating, bathing and getting dressed.

Federal regulators repeatedly demanded that the state apply the same standard for everyone, and a federal judge ruled last December that the state was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and ordered a common standard to qualify for personal care services.

Choosing the lower standard used in adult care facilities could have cost North Carolina hundreds of millions of dollars, so the state chose the tougher standard that had been applied to people receiving personal care services at home. As a result, more than 11,000 disabled people in group or adult care homes will no longer qualify for the services through Medicaid as of Jan. 1 because the state considers them functional enough to live without them.

After adult care facilities said the cut to their income could put them out of business, lawmakers set aside about $40 million to help them transition.

In the final days of the legislative session, however, Republican leaders changed the law to say the transition money could go only to adult care homes – group homes for mentally ill and developmentally disabled people would get no help.

"It was our understanding from staff and the information we had at the time that the changes in the personal care services definition would not impact the financial stability of those group homes," said Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake.

WRAL News has obtained emails between the state Department of Health and Human Services and lawmakers that show lawmakers and staffers were told a week before the law was finalized that group homes would need help.

Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, who's experienced at handling mental health issues in the General Assembly, said she wants to know how DHHS couldn't have passed that information along.

"Why didn't anybody over there know and why didn't anybody tell us?" Insko said she asked people. "I got a call back that they did know. A legislative staffer called me and said they had actually had conversations."

DHHS officials declined to comment Thursday.

In Wednesday's gubernatorial debate, Republican candidate Pat McCrory blamed Gov. Beverly Perdue for the looming crisis. He also has repeatedly tried to link his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, to Perdue's actions.

"Gov. Perdue recently signed a deal with the federal government which is literally pushing people out of senior homes and possibly out of the street," McCrory said. "These are usually older people, many of them with mentally ill issues, and come January we could have a major catastrophe."

The Perdue administration's agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice was to offer more housing options for mentally ill people.

A spokesman for Dalton on Thursday blasted McCrory's remarks.

"Not only is Pat McCrory wrong, but it's the Republican legislature's budget, which he supported and Walter Dalton opposed, that created the problem in the first place," spokesman Schorr Johnson said. "This isn't the first time Pat McCrory has no clue what he's talking about."

McCrory's campaign declined Thursday to clarify his comment.