BY SUSAN K. LIVIO
TRENTON — Both houses of the Legislature rushed to pass a pair of bills today that would slow down the Christie administration's plans to transfer people with developmental disabilities.
The measures would affect about 470 developmentally disabled people who are living in facilities outside the state, and require hundreds of others displaced from the closing of institutions to get comparable care in community housing.
Both bills will be sent to Gov. Chris Christie, who decides whether to sign them into law.
The Senate voted 37-1 and the Assembly voted 75-0 with three abstentions to approve the bill that would impose a moratorium on the Department of Human Services' plan to transfer people with developmental disabilities living out of state centers — some for decades — into New Jersey facilities. Human Services officials have argued the transfers would net the state an extra $21 million in Medicaid funding, and would make it a shorter trip for families visiting their loved ones.
But parents like Jeff Krautman of Franklin Lakes said the plan, known as Return Home New Jersey, would be needlessly disruptive. His 42-year-old daughter has lived at Pathfinder Village in Edmonston N.Y. since she was 16 and she's well taken care of there.
"We had hundreds of parents barraging the Assembly and Senate with phone calls" to pass this bill (S2249), Krautman said in a telephone interview following the vote this evening. "We had overwhelming support from the Assembly and Senate, as you can see. It's a non-partisan issue, and it’s the humane thing to do."
The bill would prevent Human Services from transferring a person from outside the state if the move is opposed by the family, or the person has lived there for 10 or more years, or a medical evaluation concludes the new placement "would be harmful to the health or safety of the individual."
Human Services also would have to prepare a written plan that described how the new placements are "substantially similar to the care and services received in an out-of-state facility," according to the bill.
"This is a complex and emotional issue that deserves our immediate attention," Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen), a sponsor of the bill. "New Jersey needs a more thorough and effective plan that addresses the individual needs of clients when they are transferring them back here.”
Both houses of the legislature also unanimously approved (S2158), requiring Human Services to ensure that people who being transferred out of the state’s developmental centers would continue to receive the same level of care and services in community housing.
The group home or other community home must be located no more than 30 miles from center, unless the residents or their legal guardian consent otherwise, according to the bill.
The North Jersey Developmental Center in Totowa closes Tuesday, although no more residents remain there. Woodbridge Developmental Center is scheduled to close Jan. 1. A total of 151 people still live there. The Christie administration has made it a priority to rely less on institutional care, which many disability advocates describe as too restrictive.
People coming from developmental centers would be assigned a transition case manager and community services manager to develop a plan with a menu of therapeutic services they were accustomed to receiving.
“For individuals living at these developmental centers, communication and contact with their families and loved ones is important for their physical and mental well being,” said Sen. Joseph Vitale, (D-Middlesex), who sponsored the bill with Sen. Peter Barnes (D-Middlesex). “It is therefore incumbent on us to ensure that these families can realistically visit their loved ones without having to drive long distances.”
Barnes sponsored the bill in part out of concern of two men, Richard Fornarotto and Steven Cortes, who were transferred from the center in Totowa, into privately-run group homes and died after choking on food.
Senate Democrats said in a statement that Barnes and Vitale believe that “while no direct evidence connecting the transfer to the deaths exists, they want to ensure that all those being moved into community living are receiving the same type of care and oversight that existed in the developmental centers."
"We must do all that we can to ensure that we don’t see anymore tragedies with our disabled residents, particularly as we transfer the remaining residents out of the North Jersey and Woodbridge Developmental Centers,” Barnes said.