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Living centers to see bump in state support

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe

State-supported living centers will get a bit more state funding over the next two years even though their resident population is shrinking and many people continue to push for the centers to be closed.

Caregivers will get a 2 percent pay raise. Pay for nurses will also increase where turnover has been high, according to Melissa Gale, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services.

But the agency has not decided yet how it will appropriate funding to each of the state’s 13 centers that are home to about 3,600 people with disabilities.

A total of 455 people live at the Denton State Supported Living Center, where 1,635 people help care for them.

One of the county’s largest employers, the center has 92 vacant positions, including spots for 33 direct caregivers.

The budget-setting process for fiscal year 2016 is expected to begin in the next few weeks, Gale said.

It costs Texas about $670 million each year to run the 13 centers. Costs have increased dramatically after the centers began making changes required by the terms of a 2009 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The living centers came under fire in 2008 after reports of a “fight club” at the Corpus Christi facility. Since then, independent monitors under the supervision of a federal judge have visited the Texas centers twice a year. They evaluated the operations against 171 standards of care.

Denton’s center was among the few that made measurable improvements during years of monitoring.

The Texas Sunset Advisory Commission had proposed last year the state close six of the 13 centers, saying the costs to run the centers are increasingly unsustainable. The recommendation proved highly controversial.

Families of those living at the centers as well as the Texas State Employee Union fought to keep the centers open. They ultimately defeated Senate Bill 204, which would have closed the center in Austin and appointed a restructuring commission to identify other centers for closure.

Texas has not closed any of its large state-run facilities for people with disabilities since 1995. Texas has more living centers and more residents living in them than any other state.

But even if SB 204 had passed, the Texas Legislature did not expect to close any of the centers in the 2016-17 biennium, according staff for Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound.

Whether the Denton center would ever be recommended for closure remains unclear.

The center’s Volunteer Services Council, a group of Denton community leaders, filed an “affidavit of reverter” in 2007.

In that document, the council and the state acknowledged a reversion clause in the property deed for the center.

Should the state stop using it to serve people with developmental disabilities, the property would no longer belong to the state of Texas.

Instead, it would revert to the council.

In addition, officials at the Denton center have said they are uniquely prepared, both with staff and equipment, to serve people with complicated medical needs.

In the past six months, six people have transferred from other living centers to the Denton center, while one Denton resident transferred out. In addition, 11 residents of the Denton facility have begun the transition toward living in the community.

Advocates, including many former residents of the centers, say people with disabilities can live fuller lives in the community and say they will continue to push for the centers to be closed.

“It’s long past time for Texas to move in a new direction,” said Michelle Dooley, of Community Now! and parent of a former center resident. “Too many families have already been broken apart by our obsession with institutions.”

Gale said the state has finalized a contract with McKesson Health Solutions to support residents transitioning back to the community.

Meanwhile, independent monitoring of the centers is expected to continue, although the original monitoring agreement has been modified.

Beginning in January, the monitors are scheduled to visit each center every nine months, instead of every six months, Gale said.

Once a center complies with any of the provisions of the agreement for a year, no further monitoring or reporting will be required on that provision, she said.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.