Local News

Patients in DHHS lawsuit to keep health services for now

Posted December 28, 2009 2:07 p.m. EST
Updated December 28, 2009 7:05 p.m. EST

— A federal judge on Monday granted a preliminary injunction that blocks the state from terminating two people's community-based mental health services until a lawsuit over the matter goes before the court in a full hearing.

Disability Rights North Carolina filed the complaint earlier this month against the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the Rocky Mount mental health facility Beacon Center, claiming the patients – who have developmental disabilities and mental illness – stood to lose state and federal services that allow them to live independently.

The cuts were supposed to go into effect Dec. 15, but U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle issued a temporary restraining order, which was set to expire Monday. It was extended until a full hearing on the matter. A date hasn't been scheduled.

The disability rights advocacy group says the service cuts violate the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, which allows for disabled people to live in their communities if they are able to do so.

"In the case of these two individuals, they've been successfully living in the community for going on 10 years," said Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights. "So, this really would be in complete violation of the law, because we don't have to prove that they could. They have already demonstrated that they are able to."

The state argued Monday morning that the individuals could still live in their communities without the services. Chris Brewer, an attorney for the defendants, said the judge's ruling was not a surprise.

"We'll proceed in defending the lawsuit," he said. "We believe we'll be successful on the merits (of our case)."

Last week, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief in support of the lawsuit, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring states to eliminate unnecessary segregation of persons with disabilities and to move support to those who can live in the community.

Two representatives from the division were in court Monday and spoke as a friend of the court, which the judge said was a factor in his decision.

"It sends a clear message that this isn't just what Disability Rights North Carolina thinks," Smith said. "It's what the U.S. Department of Justice thinks."

Earlier this year, lawmakers cut DHHS funding by approximately $1.7 billion to help close a $4.6 billion state budget gap. Those cuts were later offset by about $15 million.

About $65 million to $75 million of the department's $390 million community services budget was cut. Mental health advocates have said that cuts in Medicaid pushed the total reduction to about $500 million.

Smith said the outcome of the case could be significant.

"While this ruling impacts just the lives of these two individuals at this moment, we think it sets precedent for future cases," she said.