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Posted at 6:05 AM ET, 02/24/2011

Facing federal threat, Virginia House endorses $30 million to move disabled from institutions

By Fredrick Kunkle

Hoping to fend off a potential lawsuit from the federal government, the House on Wednesday agreed to spend $30 million to begin moving people with severe intellectual disabilities out of state-operated institutions and into community-based care.

The measure was sent down to the legislature by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) in response to a long-awaited report by the U.S. Justice Department that was highly critical of the commonwealth's compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The House bill--sponsored by Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and amended by Del. Johnny S. Joannou (D-Portsmouth)--would put $30 million into a trust fund for up to 600 "waivers" and other programs that would allow people with intellectual and developmental disabilities to receive services in community settings, instead of institutions.

There were procedural questions about appropriating money outside the normal budgetary process, but no one stood in the way of the bill's passage.

Del. Robin Abbott (D-Newport News) tried to rid the measure of any references to "mental retardation," a term many in the disabled community find offensive. But she voluntarily withdrew her amendment after sponsors explained that changing the language in the code could have unintended consequences that might jeopardize other funding sources, such from the federal government, that continue to define people with intellectual disabilities in such terms.

The House dispensed with the usual procedure of considering the bill three times and instead voted its final approval by a vote of 96-0. A similar measure -- which is sponsored by Sen. Ralph S. Northam (D-Norfolk) and does not specify how much money to allocate -- will be presented for final approval in the Senate on Thursday. Both chambers will then hammer out a final sum.

Virginia serves about 36,000 people with disabilities through state and local programs. The commonwealth has been slower than most states to de-institutionalize, and about 1,100 still live in one of the commonwealth's five institutions for the profoundly disabled, including the Northern Virginian Training Center on Braddock Road. Although the Justice Department initially began investigating the Central Virginia Training Center in Lynchburg, its review expanded under the Obama administration to examine the commonwealth's system of providing such care.

In a letter dated Feb. 10, the Justice Department advised Virginia that its current system was inadequate and criticized the size of its waiting list for waivers.

By Fredrick Kunkle  | February 24, 2011; 6:05 AM ET
Categories:  General Assembly 2011  
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