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State budget cut threatens to close six Marin group homes for disabled

03.28.2011

At least six group homes in Marin that house 36 severely disabled individuals could be forced to close if a funding cut signed into law last week by Gov. Jerry Brown is implemented.

The budget measure reduces funding by 10 percent to intermediate care facilities for persons with developmental disabilities. Individuals in these community-based homes have disabilities such as cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism and seizure disorders. Many are in wheelchairs and can't speak. They all require 24-hour care.

The budget cut is part of Brown's plan to deal with the state's whopping $26.6 billion deficit by balancing cuts with extensions of recent tax increases. But operators of the group homes say that if their clients are forced into regional developmental centers, costs to the state will only escalate.

"It costs over $300,000 a year to provide services to someone in a developmental center," said Mary Jann, director of regulatory affairs for the Sacramento-based California Association of Health Facilities, which represents the group homes, as well as skilled nursing facilities statewide.

By comparison, Jann said care in a group home costs about $70,000 a year.

In their heyday during the 1970s, the developmental centers, which are regional institutions, housed 13,000 people, said Nancy Lungren, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Developmental Services. Today, however, that number has dwindled to about 1,300, and the state is in the process of closing its developmental center in Pomona, one of four remaining, Lungren said.

Even before the 10 percent cut, the group homes were struggling to cope with low Medi-Cal rates and a freeze on rate increases imposed by the Legislature in 2009.

"Some (organizations) have gone into significant ... debt trying to stay even," Jann said.

There are at least nine intermediate care facilities in Marin. Two San Rafael-based nonprofits — Lifehouse and Casa Allegra Community Services — operate six of the nine. Marin Integrated Living Enrichment Services, a private company, operates two facilities in Novato. Another private company, A Broader Living Experience, also operates a home in San Rafael.

Nancy Dow Moody, chief executive of Lifehouse, said each of her four homes in Marin is running a yearly deficit of about $34,000. She said her organization has so far been able to make up the difference with fundraisers but will have to close at least two of the homes if the 10 percent funding cut takes effect.

"Many of our clients are so fragile that moving them from their homes could threaten their lives; it's like destroying a family," Moody said.

Chris Bonfiglio, executive director of Casa Allegra, and Nancy Lloyd, who oversees operations at the Marin Integrated Living homes, both said it is unlikely that their facilities could remain open if the 10 percent cut is made. Casa Allegra and Marin Integrated Living each operate two group homes in Marin.

Lloyd said, "I don't get the sense that the state has a contingency plan."

Bonfiglio said, "Having done this for 35 years, it sure feels like we're going backwards and devaluing some of our most fragile individuals, and I have to wonder what that says for us as a society."

John Kalb, whose son, Jared, has lived at Lifehouse's Nova House in San Rafael since 2008, said he would consider having his son move in with him again rather than send him to a developmental center. Jared, 22, has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair because he has limited control of his arms and legs. He speaks with great difficulty.

"At this point, Jared lives in a house with five other people, he's very communicative, he's very outgoing, he's very friendly and he's got real connections with people who live and work there," Kalb said. "I would think that in an institutional environment those connections would be much more challenging to make."

When asked if he enjoys living at Nova House, Jared had no trouble articulating.

"Yep, you bet," he said.

Lifehouse is organizing a rally in Sacramento on Wednesday to protest the budget cut. Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said he is well aware of the issue.

"I have been working with the chairman of the Assembly budget committee, Bob Blumenfield, and his staff on the possibility of some follow-up legislation, some clean-up legislation, that might be able to modify how the cut is allocated," Huffman said. "We might be able to take advantage of some additional monies elsewhere in the budget and minimize these cuts to the housing providers. That's a very, very high priority."

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