Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Panel votes to close two health centers

By Hilary Russell

In an 11th-hour move, Gov. Pat Quinn sent a letter requesting an extension in the decision to close the William A. Howe Developmental Center in Tinley Park, a Chicago suburb. The letter was sent to members of the legislative Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability, requesting a minimum 30-day extension to complete his own assessment of the facility.

Howe, which houses developmentally disabled adults, has had its share of problems in the past three years. It was decertified almost two years ago by the federal government for failing to meet minimum standards of care, forcing the state to pick up the check for the center’s operating costs.

Prior to today’s vote, committee members expressed dismay concerning the governor’s actions.

“This is a difficult decision for all the members of this commission. I just think it’s irresponsible of the governor at this late stage to come in with a letter and ask us to delay this decision,” said Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican. “My opinion is, the worst thing we can do is be indecisive. We should make a decision for the commission and move forward for all those affected, and I just can’t fathom why we would grant an extension at this late date, even for the governor.”

In an effort to explain the governor’s actions, Michelle Saddler, Quinn's director of policy, and Sean Vinck, chief legislative counsel, spoke on his behalf. “The principle that’s guided us is a fundamental one. First, do no harm,” said Vinck. “We’re very concerned about taking any other action because we fear unintended consequences, so we take it with great seriousness. … We decided that the best course to pursue was to engage an outside consultant who can objectively and meaningfully evaluate the circumstances and give a recommendation based on wisdom, good philosophy and good practice, and that’s the position we’d like to take.”

With 12 members present, the vote was deadlocked 6 to 6, but with a quorum of seven votes needed to deny the governor’s request, the motion died and Howe is now recommended for closure. However, the State Facilities Closure Act makes a closure by the commission only advisory to the governor.

Similarly, the committee members also voted to close Tinley Mental Health Center. Both facilities occupy the same parcel of land. Members voted 9 to 3 in favor of closure.

Rep. Elaine Nekritz, a Northbrook Democrat, voted yes on both measures. “I think (Quinn has) been trying to find someone for a while to take a different look at Howe, … but the timing of (the request) was a little stunning,” she said. Nekritz said closing either facility won’t happen overnight. “In order to adequately meet the needs of the residents, it’s going to take months to do that because they’re going to have find appropriate placements, placements that the families are comfortable with. And that’s going to take awhile for the department to work through, but they’ve been planning for this, so I think that they should feel they can do this in fairly short order, in a matter of months.”

Rep. Richard Myers, a Colchester Republican, also voted to close Howe. He said that visiting with the Illinois Department of Human Services, which supported the closing, gave him reason to consider his position. “Looking at the facts about the operations there, and the question surrounding the deaths and the fact that we haven’t been able to be certified by the federal government to receive Medicaid reimbursement,” he said. “All of those facts combined suggested to me that it is time to close that facility.” But if the governor accepts the commission’s recommendation, Myers expects there to be a public outcry. “In the past few days, our office has received numerous calls from families who wanted it to stay open because they felt their care there was such that they were able to continue to stay together,” he said. “And I can understand that. Others, of course, feel there’s a real lack of care.”

Advocates who wanted the center closed cite at least 30 deaths that have occurred on the grounds in the past 2 ½ years, one as recent as last month.
See background here.

Tom Green, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Human Services, said he is pleased with the decision made today by the commission.

Sheila Romano, executive director of the Illinois Council on Developmental Disabilities, said in a statement: “Howe’s closure is a very difficult, emotional issue for all parties who are advocating for what they believe is best. We urge the people of Illinois or elected officials and policy-makers to reflect on whether there is a place for a failed institution that has lost all federal funding due to repeated allegations of substandard care and neglect.”

Advocates who want the center to stay open tell a much different story.
Belinda Baker, director of the Mechanical and Transportation Department at Howe Developmental Center, said she thinks members made a terrible mistake. “First they need to review all of the facts and look at the data that we’ve provided that shows we give quality care to all of the patients and residents of Howe,” she said. As for any alleged incidents of mistreatment and the number of deaths reported in the past three years, Baker said, those can happen anywhere.

“You’re going to have deaths at any facility based on the age and the health issues that some of our residents have,” she said. “The majority of those are attributed to natural causes. They were not because of any abuse or neglect.”

Betty Turturillo, president of the Howe Family and Friends Association, said the group is “is outraged that the members of COGFA think they know better than us what is best for our loved ones.” Turturillo added that the closing of a facility like Howe doesn’t just affect the patients. “The real ‘choices’ that have been offered to Howe families if our center closes are no choice at all. We would have to choose between moving to another state center much farther away or settle for fewer services in the community, often in more isolated settings, that could endanger our loved ones.”

The commission’s recommendations are filed May 9, 2009, at which time Quinn will either accept the vote or proceed with an independent inquiry into Howe before issuing a decision.

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