Source: The Star Ledger County News

Author: Susan K. Livio

Despite gaining overwhelming legislative support, two bills that would have given families more say where family members with developmental disabilities live and their level of care and supervision have been rejected by Governor Chris Christie.

The governor conditionally vetoed one bill that would have halted the state Department of Human Services’ plan of transferring about 470 developmentally disabled people living in out-of-state centers – some for decades – into state facilities.

Christie also conditionally vetoed a bill that would have required the department to provide a comparable level of care and supervision in privately operated group homes to people coming from state-run institutions, known as developmental centers.

The same level of care would be provided “where feasible,” according to the veto statement. Lawmakers who sponsored the measures and families who serve as guardians to those affected by the legislation yesterday expressed their disappointment with the governor’s actions and said they were considering their legal

“I will advocate to override the governor’s veto to allow any resident currently served out of state to continue to stay in his or her home as long as it is medically appropriate,” Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, a sponsor of both bills, said yesterday. “He has no regard for our most vulnerable families.”

A spokesman for the governor, Michael Drewniak, declined to respond to Huttle’s Statement.

Lawmakers have not overturned any of Christie’s vetoes, even cases in which the original bill drew overwhelming and bipartisan support.

In his conditional veto statement released Friday night, Christie said he would not support a moratorium on his initiative, called “Return Home New Jersey,” or exempt people who had lived outside the state for more than a decade, which was among the provisions sought in then bill (S2249).

He offered an alternative that would require the disabled or their guardians to be responsible for shouldering half of the annual cost of their housing if the federal Medicaid program declined to cover it.

New Jersey stands to save about $21 million by bringing back people from facilities outside the state. In past years, New Jersey lacked quality residential programs and sent people to Pennsylvania and as far away as Tennessee and Texas.

But in the last two years, according to the governor;s veto statement, the Christie administration “has opened more that 1000 new living opportunities in community residences, with more on the way.”

“I am aware that moving a loved one from a familiar setting can often be a difficult process,” Christie’s statement said. “We must ensure that individuals receive the services and supports to best accommodate their unique needs in the least restrictive environment and most appropriate setting … in a manner that is both sustainable and financially responsible.”

A group of about 70 families whose relatives would be affected by the governor’s initiative said they were stunned, because it appears the state is sacrificing the stability and safety of their loved ones to save money.

“You can say I am very disappointed,” said Paul Altruda of Manalapan, whose son, Thomas, has been a resident of the Brookwood Community in Brookshire, Texas, since 2005.

Altruda declined to discuss the matter further until the law firm retained by the families reviewed the governor’s veto and advised them on how to proceed.veto

Ina Falk, who said she, too, was awaiting legal advice, called the conditional veto, “very disappointing,” noting it had the support of the majority of Republicans and Democrats alike.

Falk said her daughter and son have lived at the same Pennsylvania facility for at least three decades and get around-the-clock nursing care, home-cooked meals, and daily programs “on a beautiful campus.”

“For them, it is the least restrictive environment,” she said.

Senator Peter Barnes, who also sponsored both bills, said he was surprised the governor would not support providing developmental center residents “comparable care” in community housing.

Barnes said Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez and other members of her staff testified at budget hearings that “the care would be comparable – no exceptions or conditions.”

“I’m disappointed they would be backtracking,” he said.