@NCCapitol

House leader calls for special session on group home funding

Posted November 30, 2012 11:31 a.m. EST
Updated November 30, 2012 8:00 p.m. EST

Scores of disabled people who live in group homes rallied outside the Legislative Building on Nov. 14, 2012, saying they will likely be on the streets within two months if lawmakers don't take action to provide Medicaid funding for personal care services they need in their daily lives.

— House Speaker Thom Tillis asked Gov. Bev Perdue on Friday to call a special legislative session before the end of the year to fix a budget gap that could cause about 2,000 people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities to lose their homes.

The crisis was triggered in July when the Republican-controlled legislature approved a one-word tweak to the state budget that excluded group homes from a nearly $40 million fund intended to cushion the effects of Medicaid eligibility changes for programs for the disabled.

Advocates for people with mental illness worry that scores of group-home residents will be dumped on the streets in the middle of winter. GOP leaders and the Democratic governor had disagreed about how to solve the problem before a Jan. 1 deadline.

"It's such a sad problem right here at the holidays, and not only that, just the thought of people with serious disabilities not having a place to go or thinking they don't have a place to go," said Ann Akland, a spokeswoman for the Wake County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Julia Leggett Adams, policy coordinator for The ARC of North Carolina, which works with disabled people, said she has been getting calls from panicked group home residents and their families.

"They are already receiving notices of discharge from their group homes," Adams said.

Perdue said recently that she has "no options" to fix the problem under the restrictions enacted by the legislature. But she added she was open to a special session, vowing that group home residents wouldn't be left in the cold.

"I'm determined that, on my watch, whether it's legal or illegal, we're not going to dump 2,000 people on the streets of North Carolina. That is just not going to happen," she said.

She said Friday that she is reviewing all options to fix the problem.

In his letter to Perdue, Tillis pledges not to try to take up any issues other than group-home funding during the special session. Earlier this year, Republican leaders were heavily criticized for using a special session to override one of the Democratic governor's vetoes on an unrelated bill.

"We have worked diligently to find solutions to the problem of providing funds to group homes for mental health patients under new federal guidelines," said Tills, R-Mecklenburg. "While we continue to work toward long-term solutions, it is time to address the short-term funding issue that could potentially force our most vulnerable citizens out of their homes at the end of this year."

Republican leaders in the state Senate said they weren't aware of Tillis' letter until it was sent. They haven't said yet whether they agree to returning to Raleigh for a special session.

Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt sent a letter to Perdue late Friday asking that she decide quickly on calling a special session to resolve the issue as soon as possible.

In recent months, Republicans including Gov.-elect Pat McCrory have sought to pin the blame for the error on the Perdue administration, claiming that they weren't informed about the potential effect on group homes.

However, as WRAL first reported in October, emails between GOP House leaders and the Department of Health and Human Services indicate that DHHS agency staff attempted to warn lawmakers about the problem, but were rebuffed. 

Akland expressed relief Friday that a special session could be held in time to keep the residents in their group homes after the holidays.

"I am so grateful both sides have decided to come together and work this out," she said. "If you don't have a home, you don't really have anything."

Adams said she hopes the uncertainty over a special session isn't a political maneuver.

"This isn't about politics. It isn't about policy. It's about people," she said. "That's who we should be working for. That's who all of our leaders should be working for in our state."