Advocates argue over future of Missouri's habilitation centers

Monday, February 21, 2011 | 9:30 p.m. CST; updated 9:42 p.m. CST, Monday, February 21, 2011

JEFFERSON CITY — Advocates for Missouri's developmentally disabled converged Wednesday on the Capitol to testify about a bill that would mark the beginning of the end for state-run residential habilitation centers.

In the House's latest effort to balance the state's budget, Rep. Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, proposed a bill that would shut down all six of the state's running habilitation centers by Jan. 1, 2018. The state would transfer the residents from the state-run residential centers to privately arranged, community-based care.

The new program is expected to save the state an average of $75 per client per day, a savings that the Department of Mental Health calculates to be more than $100,000.

Bill supporters see this as an opportunity for the evolution of the way mental health patients are cared for. Angela Gourley, a mother of a son with developmental disabilities, said institutional living is "on its way out."

DeAnna Noriega, a representative from the Disability Coalition on Health Care Reform, supports the bill for the advantages she believes a community living situation can provide and said the bill is "an important move in the right direction."

Bill opponents said the bill disregards the recommendations of a 2006 report by a mental health task force that no habilitation center should be closed as long as it is needed — and according to bill opponent Talisha Weiss, they are.

In Weiss' family's search for a new living space for her cousin, they were met with closed doors at the closest facility to their home, the Bellefontaine Habilitation Center. Because of the program's popularity, there were no beds available. Instead, her cousin lived in the Nevada center until his transfer to the center in Poplar Bluff, three hours from the family's home in St. Clair.

New applicants to the state-run habilitation program are met with what Weiss describes as "frozen beds," meaning the facilities are closed to newcomers, despite the program's purported popularity.

Weiss described her experience with habilitation centers as wonderful.

"They became his family; they became his home," Weiss said. "They watch movies together; they do activities together; they're used to having these families. And now, their families are all being torn apart, and I don't think it's right."

Bill opponents also worry about the state's ability to provide the same level of care currently available to habilitation center patients, especially for patients with greater needs, to residents of the proposed community-based environments. 

Rep. Genise Montecillo, D-Affton, who has experience from 23 years as a special-education teacher in St. Louis County, remains torn.  

"I like the idea of plans. I like that they're sitting down and developing plans," Montecillo said. "(But) I don't know that I'm ready to say that we need to close all hab centers."

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