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Dispute Over State Funding Blurs Outlook for Disabled

August 25, 1986|LYNN O'SHAUGHNESSY | Times Staff Writer

When state lawmakers passed the Lanterman Act in 1977, it was hailed as landmark legislation that would enhance the lives of the developmentally disabled.

For some time, it had been widely recognized that those in state hospitals suffering from autism, mental retardation, cerebral palsy and other developmental disabilities could probably lead better lives on the outside--if they only had somewhere else to go.

The act set about to create those places. To encourage the emptying of the state hospitals, the act contained provisions to ensure that parents and others who wanted to start group homes for the disabled would receive enough money from the state to provide quality care.

Result After Nine Years

In one sense, the Lanterman Act is working. Today fewer than 10% of the developmentally disabled--7,000 people--remain in the state hospitals, which are now called developmental centers.

But nine years after its enactment, the act's custodian, the state Department of Developmental Services, is under attack in the courts and in a confrontation in the Legislature with operators of residential homes for the disabled.

Despite a massive lobbying effort this year in the Legislature, the operators have gotten nowhere in their efforts to get more money for their expenses, which the department acknowledges exceed what the state provides by 14%.

Advocates for the disabled say the freeze on rates would jeopardize the safety of residents and would erode the quality of care being provided.

A bill that would have given a modest 5% rate increase was killed in a state Senate committee last week. The developmental services department refused to support the bill because it would not have been permitted to expand a rate-setting experiment it recently started in three parts of the state. The bill's author, Assemblyman Gerald N. Felando (R-San Pedro), wanted to limit the expansion because many residential home operators participating in the experiment, including 100 who formed an association, strongly oppose it.

Outlook for Legislation

There appears to be little hope that Felando can resurrect the bill before the legislative session ends this week. Even if he does, the governor probably would veto it, since the developmental services and finance departments oppose the legislation as now written.

This is thought to be the first time that the 4,000 operators of such facilities will have gotten no increase at all since the act became effective eight years ago.

The apparent defeat is particularly bitter for advocates for the disabled because this year more people were involved in the effort than anytime in recent memory.

Thousands of parents wrote letters and sent telegrams to legislators and signed a petition presented to the governor. In hopes that a celebrity might draw more attention to their plight, organizers got Stasha Stallone, the former wife of actor Sylvester Stallone and the parent of an autistic son, to be their spokesman. And this spring, 250 disabled children and adults gathered in front of the governor's district office in Los Angeles and waved protest signs.

Advocates for the disabled are now pinning their hopes on three lawsuits filed in Los Angeles Superior Court alleging that the department has violated the Lanterman Act by using flawed data when setting rates.

According to the plaintiffs--charities, private providers, a national autistic organization and the disabled themselves--the state's methodology makes it appear that it is cheaper to run a group home than it really is. The plaintiff's attorneys say flawed data is also being used as the foundation for the department's rate experiment.

The department is ignoring some of the costs a home incurs that the Lanterman Act requires be considered when rates are set, said Valerie Vanaman, a Sherman Oaks attorney who filed two of the lawsuits.

"This is the most phenomenal department I've ever dealt with," Vanaman said. "They don't seem to be concerned with what the law says."

For example, Vanaman said, the act requires the state to take geography into account when computing rates. Obviously, housing in Los Angeles or San Francisco costs more than it does in Yuba City or Redding, so the operators in the urban areas should receive more money, she said.

Differences Unclear

That does not happen now. Department officials say that is because they have been unable to pinpoint what the differences in real estate costs are throughout the state.

"It's impossible to pay for a geographic difference if we can't identify what it is," said Phyllis Cadei, an assistant department director.

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