By Susan Livio NJ Advance Media
The state will not transfer people with developmental disabilities to New Jersey from outside facilities if their families oppose the move, state senators said Monday in announcing the compromise to the unpopular "Return Home New Jersey" policy reached with Gov. Chris Christie.
The state Department of Human Services has relocated about 170 people since 2009, and was slated to transfer another 370 more. The policy was developed to save money and move disabled clients closer to their families. The implementation of the policy has accelerated on Christie's watch.
Some of the residents have been out of state for decades, or in specialized care relative to their disability that they could never find in New Jersey before, and according to their families, is still not available here. Families fought back, enlisting the media and legislators to stop Return Home New Jersey, and threatening to sue.
"Today we are announcing a return to sanity, and a return to compassion," Sen. Robert Gordon (D-Bergen) said at a press conference at the Statehouse. "We're grateful the administration listened to our concerns."
Carolyn Purcell Reichenbach said she is ecstatic over the compromise that allows her brother Richard to continue to live at Woods, a facility in Pennsylvania, "where he is happy, healthy, safe and - most importantly - home."
"In the end, Gov Christie did the right thing and pulled the reins on a program that clearly wasn't meeting the purposes compelling its implementation; there was little to no cost savings on the proposed in-state transfers, individuals were often being moved further away from their families and the hope for improved oversight was illusory at best," Reichenbach said.
The state Department of Human Services would back off transferring people who reside out of state if their families or guardians request so in writing, according to the bill and its sponsors.
In order to opt out, people must be enrolled in the Medicaid program, and the facility taking care of them must not be cited for safety violations or fail to turn over inspection and investigative reports, according to a draft copy of the bill. People who move from the facility they live in now to another out-of-state center would not be eligible.
Christie's spokeswoman Nicole Sizemore said the governor "agreed with the need for sensible changes that ensure the safety and well-being of every New Jerseyan residing in an out-of-state placement."
"It is encouraging to see those changes are reflected in the legislation being proposed by lawmakers today and we look forward to continuing our work together on behalf of these families," according to Sizemore's statement.
The bill is expected to be introduced on Thursday by Gordon, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Sens. Tom Kean (R-Union), Christopher Bateman (R-Somerset).
The state "shall not transfer, or otherwise compel the transfer of, an individual with a developmental disability who is currently residing in an out-of-State placement to a residential placement in this State, if the individual or the guardian of the individual objects to such transfer in writing," according to the bill.
A month ago, the legislature was within a vote of overriding Gov. Chris Christie for the first time to enact a bill that would put a moratorium on the policy.
Gordon at that time said they declined to pursue another override attempt until they met with Christie administration officials to see if they could come up with a compromise.
The deal was reached after a meeting held July 13 with the governor, the legislators, and administration officials.
"The climate of the meeting was highly constructive and the Governor expressed his strong long term personal interest in the welfare of New Jersey's disabled and stated that he was committed to fix this situation this summer," according to one of the family members who attended the meeting, Michael Cole.
Sweeney agreed. "The governor listened," he said, praising Christie for his track record on providing services and protecting the rights of people with developmental disabilities.
Bateman, who sponsored one of the earlier versions of a compromise that families later rejected because they said it spared too few people from a forced move, said
"This is the real deal," Bateman said, assuring families not to worry.
Kean said the state halted all moves and planned moves July 1, and will abide by the legislation, even though it is months from passage. Kean stressed the program was not abolished, but that the bill would make it easier for families to interact with the administration and make their wishes know.
"This is about policy, and families. The override wasn't important. What was important was we fixed it," Sweeney said.
The lawmakers said it was not clear how many people would be affected by the bill. The legislation does not address people who were already returned to the state.
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), a sponsor of the earlier bill that would have quashed the policy, said she was relieved "to see the Christie Administration heed our pleas and finally reverse course.
"After holding hearings, passing legislation and pushing for a veto override we have finally achieved the relief we sought for the parents and siblings who fought for their loved ones," said Huttle, who said she would volunteer to sponsor the compromise bill.