Asw. Huttle Voices Concerns Over Some Human Services Changes

NJTV Mary Alice Williams

New leadership for the largest and most expensive department in state government is coming at a tumultuous time. The longest serving Department of Human Services Commissioner Jennifer Velez has resigned to take a top post at Barnabas Health after eight transformational years. Assemblywoman and Chair of the Human Services Committee Valerie Vainieri Huttle spoke withNJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams about the state of human services in New Jersey.

Huttle recently wrote an op-ed in The Star-Ledger saying the department has been heading in the wrong direction for a long time and that it needs strong new leadership.

“Since commissioner Velez’s tenure it has been quite transformational and tumultuous eight years,” said Huttle. “On her plate during her tenure they closed two developmental centers, two in the north. They closed one psychiatric center, Hagedorn.”

In addition to the closures, Return Home New Jersey, a program which uses New Jersey tax dollars to send the state’s most fragile residents out of state to receive care, would be affected. According to Huttle, “[The program] would return about 400 of our most medically fragile residents out of state who were placed there years ago because they did not have the appropriate settings here in New Jersey. They’re supposed to be coming back to New Jersey and unfortunately they’re not really able to find the same type of care here in New Jersey.”

Advocates and care providers of the disabled are outraged, claiming that politics are at the heart of the changes and not the citizens.

“It’s probably more than politics. It’s about getting dollars into the state. When we talk about what the consequences are, the intent may be fine, but there are impractical realities,” said Huttle.

One of the most controversial parts of the Statewide Transition Plan is a day program that would require people with disabilities to spend 75 percent of their day out in the community away from their program sites. Huttle says the program “may be OK for some, but for others that are severely compromised, whether they may have feeding tubes, would be a challenge to them.” Ultimately, “It comes down to the dollars. Do they have enough transportation to go out into the community? Is there going to be adequate staffing to provide that same care when they do go out into the community?” asked Huttle.

Another concern is the rule that would allow group homes to house just four people.

“[The rule of four] will certainly put a halt to some of the projects that are already in progress, that has approval in the municipalities for our severely disabled population,” said Huttle. “It would almost be causing a moratorium on group homes, where, by the way, this is something we should be providing to make sure that people are integrated into the community, but in a way that they are comfortable with and in a way that they are integrated with dignity.”

The deadline for public comment was last week, and the new plan should be in place by March 17 with the state having five years to become compliant.

“I am hoping that with the negative feedback from all the providers — the families and the advocates — that they do change course to make sure that the people with disabilities are integrated into the community at their own pace and not being forced to do something just because of the funding,” Huttle said.