Bill challenging Christie plan to return disabled to N.J. helps no one, sponsor now says

By Susan K. Livio NJ Advance Media Group

Legislation intended to spare 200 people with developmental disabilities from being forced to leave out-of-state facilities they've called home for years lost the support Friday of one of its state Senate sponsors who now believes the bill may help no one, NJ Advance Media has learned.

State Sen. Jeff Van Drew (D-Cape May) said he has been deluged with calls and emails from angry and panicked families since Monday, when the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved a hastily-revised version of the bill that his co-prime sponsor Sen. Christopher "Kip" Bateman (R-Somerset) rewrote with the Christie administration.

Bateman told the committee the revised bill would allow 199 people to remain where they are because they had spent either half of their lives or at least 25 years at an out-of-state facility.

Those who did not meet this threshold would be subject to the "Return Home New Jersey Policy" and be transferred to a state-licensed group home or other supervised dwelling. The Christie administration said the policy would save the state money that could be used to support housing and services for other disabled people on a long waiting list.

Van Drew said he now understands the compromise bill contains "so many exceptions, it would be exceptional if anyone qualified" for help. He asked Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) to delay a vote in the Senate scheduled for Monday, but Sweeney declined. Sweeney's office confirmed this Friday night.

"We have very frail, very dependent individuals who have made a place their home and because of that we are really concerned it could do harm to them if we move them," Van Drew said. "I am not supportive of the bill as it has been amended as those negotiations went through, and I am pushing for the bill to be held until some of these issues can be worked out."

Bateman denied the bill would help no one, saying he has contacted some families directly who said they would qualify. He said the administration showed him a chart that identified at least 195 people who would benefit, and possibly as many as 199. "At some point, you just have to trust people," he said.

"This is as far as the administration is willing to go," Bateman said. "If this blows up Monday, they will all be coming home."

The legislation (S2600) includes several exceptions that will disqualify most, if not everybody who stands to benefit, according to lawyers who represent about 60 families , as well as a half dozen relatives of disabled people who spoke or corresponded with NJ Advance Media.

The exceptions, according to the bill, include the requirement that disabled person's guardians live in New Jersey; the out-of-state facility costs must less than a placement offered by the state; they continue to live in the same location for the rest of their lives; they meet Medicaid income guidelines; and their guardian makes the required financial contribution to their care, according to the bill.

Paul Prior, a disability law expert whose firm is advising about 60 families affected by the Return Home New Jersey policy, said no one he represents would be spared under these exceptions.

State and federal law requires that housing and services provided by the government be in the person's best interests. If this legislation is enacted into law, the state would be allowed to put monetary concerns on par with the person's best interests, Prior said. Families also would be reliant on the state to determine how much housing accommodations and other services cost compared to other states.

"It would be harmful to most families. It would give the division too much latitude," Prior said. "It's worse than nothing."

Sandra Bartusis said her 60-year-old sister, Nancy meets the 25-year requirement because she has lived at the facility in Berwyn, PA. for 26-1/2 years. "But I'm her legal guardian and I live in Philadelphia," said Bartusis, who called the residency requirement for guardians "ridiculous and impossible."

Regardless of whether the Senate approves the bill Monday, Assemblywoman Valerie Vaineri Huttle (D-Bergen) chairwoman of the Human Services Committee, said she will not shepherd the Senate bill through the Assembly. Her committee in January approved the version Bateman once championed that would exempt 45 people from the policy that could apply to 558 people

"The only people being helped by this proposal is the front office and the governor, and in all good faith and conscience I cannot allow that to happen," Huttle said.

Susan K. Livio may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @SusanKLivio. Find Politics on Facebook.