Opinion: Trigger cuts take aim at the developmentally disabled

As the Department of Finance gears up to release its revenue forecast that will decide whether or not California will implement “trigger” cuts, Californians with developmental and intellectual disabilities, once again, find themselves as the bull’s-eye on the state’s budget dart board. In these difficult economic times, the state can only fund the highest priorities and supporting people with developmental and intellectual disabilities must be one of those priorities.

If you recall, the two tiers of trigger cuts are automatic mid-year budget reductions totaling almost $2 billion from education and social services. The cuts were a kind of safety mechanism incorporated into the June budget deal to deliver a state budget “balanced” by overly-optimistic revenue projections. The budget failed to develop any long-term, sustainable plans to address California’s chronic budget shortfall and in doing so, nearly guaranteed that the trigger cuts would be implemented.

The $100 million, first tier trigger cut slated for the Department of Developmental Services will compound the impact of multiple, ongoing cuts to social services for Californians with developmental disabilities. After more than a decade of funding neglect, support programs that allow Californians with developmental disabilities to live in their communities are shutting down, jeopardizing lives. If Californians with developmental disabilities do not receive the community-based support they need and deserve, thousands may end up being shipped to state-run institutions, where the cost to taxpayers soars. The bottom line is that the trigger cuts, and any future budget cuts, have the potential to destroy California’s cost-effective, community-based service delivery system.

In 1969, the Lanterman Act established California’s community-based service system to provide individuals with developmental disabilities the opportunity to live and work in their communities, rather than in state-run institutions. The California system is unique because it is administered and operated by private, community-based, not-for-profit organizations called Regional Centers (RC’s). California’s 21 RC’s contract with the Department of Developmental Services to provide local eligibility, case management, and referral functions for individuals throughout the state. In turn, the RC’s then contract with local community-based organizations to deliver the many different services available to individuals and their families.

The system’s effectiveness is demonstrated by the productive and independent lives of the people it serves, at a fraction of the cost for institutional care. Today, more than 240,000 persons with autism, cerebral palsy, mental retardation, epilepsy and other developmental disabilities are a vital part of communities across California. They receive a variety of residential and non-residential services based on their individual needs from a host of local community-based organizations. Combining federal and state funding, the total annual average cost per person supported in the community is approximately $100,000.

Alternatively, some individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities live in state owned and operated Developmental Centers (DC’s). Five institutions house fewer than 2,000 Californians, many with complex needs. The total annual average cost per person living in a DC is approximately $340,000. With the state facing court-ordered deinstitutionalization programs, it is not viable to sustain individuals in the DC’s. Unfortunately, as people have moved out of the DC’s, California’s taxpayers still foot the bill to maintain the grounds, equipment and staffing levels designed when the DC’s were serving more than 10,000 people.

A decade of rate freezes, program closures and devastating budget cuts have destroyed many community-based service programs, leaving the more than 240,000 Californians with developmental disabilities at serious risk. The trigger cuts will make this problem even worse. Cutting the very programs that actually save California money is penny-wise and pound-foolish. It is much less expensive to serve people with developmental disabilities in their communities, rather than placing them in state institutions.

Demographic data indicates that the disabilities of DC residents mirror the disabilities of thousands of people living successfully in their communities. Nine states have successfully eliminated state-owned institutions, and other states are making dramatic headway in that same direction. This leads me to believe that we can focus on smarter ways to cut spending than continuing to chip away at the community-based services that ultimately save the state money. It simply doesn’t make sense to support the outdated, more costly institutionalization model.

I am a firm believer that savings can be found in virtually every government program. I am confident in the ability of the Department of Developmental Services to put the needs of Californians with developmental and intellectual disabilities, and their families, first – and make necessary cuts from the DC’s, not community-based services.

Meaningful reforms to California’s developmental services system are necessary to manage costs. Accelerating the closure schedule for the remaining DC’s, making sure the money allocated for the current residents stays in the system and follows those individuals out into the community, and a careful examination of where California’s service delivery system can be optimized and modernized are the first very important steps to ensuring the state’s ability to meet its moral and legal obligations to people with developmental disabilities.

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