A federal agency is investigating how West Virginia treats its intellectually disabled population, the state’s secretary of Health and Human Resources says the agency is cooperating, and lawmakers today heard concerns about the state’s institutionalization practices.
West Virginia’s DHHR secretary this week confirmed the agency is cooperating with a federal investigation of discrimination allegations at state-run facilities for disabled people.
“We don’t want anyone discriminated against, and we will not tolerate that,” DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said during a Monday briefing about a variety of state topics.
Lawmakers heard about conditions at state-run facilities today during an interim meeting of the Joint Committee on Health, with the main presenter describing “a vicious cycle of institutionalization.”
“I know the temperature’s high with DHHR, and I want to make it clear right now we’re not here as an adversary of DHHR,” Mike Folio, legal director of Disability Rights West Virginia. “We’re here as an ally of disabled people who have no voice, whose voice has been silenced, who are locked up in institutions.”
He went on to describe unnecessary institutionalization, abuse, fear of retaliation among those who speak out, lack of transparency and enormous costs at state-run facilities. There was so much of concern that Health Committee Chairman Matthew Rohrbach said lawmakers would likely need to revisit the issue.
Crouch, who was not a scheduled presenter before the legislative interim committee, went to the podium late in the meeting to rebut Folio’s comments. He asked how the Disability Rights West Virginia position could be considered non-adversarial. “That was an attack on DHHR,” he said.
“When we have issues, they’re investigated. There are no secrets here. It’s not perfect, but we’re taking care of folks,” Crouch told lawmakers.
He reiterated the agency’s intent to cooperate with a federal investigation and then added that he thinks Disability Rights West Virginia should be investigated too.
“We’re trying to keep folks in a psychiatric facility? It’s nonsense,” Crouch said.
The civil rights office for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notified the state of the investigation in mid-November, responding to a complaint that the state agency is “engaging in unlawful discrimination based on disability.”
The original complaint was filed by Disability Rights of West Virginia, which contends that DHHR fails to administer services, programs, and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to meet the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities.
As a result, Disability Rights of West Virginia alleges that some people who are eligible for services under the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Waiver did not receive services needed to avoid the risk of institutionalization and are now needlessly segregated in state-operated hospitals.
“The state has broken its promise with IDD patients,” Folio told lawmakers today.
The condition of residents at state-run facilities, particularly William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Weston, has been a longstanding area of concern for legislators.
After a long sigh on MetroNews’ “Talkline” today, Senate President Craig Blair described significant frustration.
“There’s a lot of words flowing around, but there’s very little action taking place,” Blair, R-Berkeley, said on statewide radio.
He added, “There are a multitude of other issues going on over there, and I would call on the governor to get with it.”
Blair signed an Oct. 14 letter to Gov. Jim Justice highlighting reports of illegal physical abuse, neglect and verbal abuse of patients. Blair also expressed concern about a lack of court-ordered transparency at the facility.
“These troubling allegations are part of a long list of problems in the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources management at Sharpe, adding to a trend of abuse suffered by vulnerable West Virginians with traumatic brain injuries and intellectual and/or developmental disabilities,” Blair wrote in the letter.
DHHR responded Nov. 12 with a letter signed by Crouch describing “serious and false allegations.”
During interim legislative meetings last month, Crouch responded to questions by lawmakers by saying “if they have any specific information, anything, any evidence that Sharpe or Bateman or DHHR has done something wrong, is inconsistent with state or federal statute, go straight to CMS and do it now.”
So that’s what happened a day later.
During a briefing with the governor on Monday, Crouch addressed the federal investigation in response to a question by Amelia Knisely of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
“We’ve already said we’re open to the investigation. We’ll provide any information requested with regard to this investigation,” Crouch said.
He added, “I’ve talked for several years now about trying to make sure we have adequate placements for individuals in our psychiatric hospitals. And I’ve said numerous times on this call and in front of the Legislature that no one should live in a psychiatric hospital that doesn’t have to.
“So we’re looking at making sure we can move folks to an appropriate level of care. We do not want folks moved to a psychiatric facility that shouldn’t be there.”
During today’s presentation to legislators, Folio said not wanting people to live in psychiatric hospitals is a laudable goal. But he questioned what’s being done to prevent that.
“I’ve not seen the plan,” Folio said. “I don’t think the plan’s ever been disclosed. It’s never been revealed. I think because there isn’t a plan, and that’s just where we’re at. This is why this vicious cycle of institutionalization just continues to occur.”