Lawsuit claims state traps sick, disabled kids in nursing homes

04 Apr 2012 9:53 AM | Anonymous
By Bob LaMendola, Sun Sentinel

Children warehoused for years by denial of services, families maintain

Florida needlessly and illegally warehouses about 250 severely sick and disabled children in nursing homes rather than pay to help them live at home or in the community, families said in a lawsuit this week.

The denial of home nursing care and other services has left the children living for months or years in institutions, even when doctors have cleared them to go home with their families, says the suit, filed in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.

A second group of families filed a separate suit saying about 3,300 at-risk children still living at home fear the lack of services by Florida Medicaid will force them into nursing homes in the future.

Florida's practices violate the Americans With Disabilities Act and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that require states to provide services that can keep people in the least restrictive settings, including foster care or group homes, the suits said.

Officials at the state Agency for Health Care Administration, which runs Medicaid, and the state Department of Health, which oversees many of the children, declined to comment.

One child identified in the lawsuit is TH, a 16-year-old girl living at Kidz Korner, a wing in the Plantation Nursing & Rehabilitation Center. TH suffered brain damage when she was severely shaken as a baby. She doesn't walk or talk and needs a breathing tube for part of the day.

She originally went to the nursing home for a brief illness. Her foster parents have wanted to take her home since March 2007, but they say they can't because the state allowed them only eight hours a day of home nursing.

"Here's a girl who has been medically stable for years. There's really no reason she should not be living at home," said Paolo Annino, a Florida State University law professor who is the girl's attorney. He and Miami attorney Matthew Dietz filed the suits.

The issue raised by the suits has flared in the past in Florida and nationwide, as states struggle with the cost of special-needs children. After past lawsuits, federal officials persuaded several states to expand services, advocates said.

Florida pays nursing homes about $500 a day, or $180,000 a year, per medically at-risk child. That's less than the $250,000 a year cost of round-the-clock home nursing, but a higher cost than other combinations of services that many families use to keep kids at home, said Denise Wronowski, a spokeswoman for Broward Children's Center, a program for the disabled.

States often find it easier to pay for institutional care, and nursing homes are happy to take children to fill beds, said Dr. Cecilia Rokusek, a Nova Southeastern University research director who once ran disabled programs.

"These kids are so young to be in nursing homes," said Rokusek, who is not involved in the suit. "I was shocked by this. We're going backward."

Nursing home officials described the children's units as kid-friendly, separated from elderly residents. Kidz Korner, with 57 children, has public school classes and many types of therapy, said Neil Sutton, administrator of the nursing home.

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