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Medicare funds reinstated at SDC but rocky road ahead

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The Sonoma Developmental Center received a rare bit of good news this week. On July 1, the state Department of Developmental Services announced that Medicare funding from the federal government – revoked in late 2014 when several residential units at SDC were found to be in violation of federal standards and requirements – had been re-instated through June 30, 2016, with the possibility of further extensions until the facility closes at the end of 2018.

The agreement, reached on June 30, essentially means that payments from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to SDC will continue for at least another year. The funding, which had been continued throughout the appeal, remains dependant upon SDC’s ability to fulfill conditions on client safety and health, staff training, and the reporting and investigation of all incidents.

That 2018 closure date, however, remains a sore subject for many stakeholders of the developmental center – those who are dismayed by the accelerated schedule for shuttering the 120-year-old facility.

“I continue to be very concerned about the short timeline for closure,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, in whose district SDC is located. “This puts our residents at risk as they transition to properties that are hastily assembled and developed without supporting services and infrastructure in the community.”

Supervisor Gorin, head of the ad-hoc Sonoma Developmental Center Coalition, alluded to recent conversations with Department of Developmental Services director Diane Dooley which suggested the loss of federal funding “is what was driving the rapid timeline for the closure” of SDC, a point of view that could not be confirmed by the DDS.

Whether or not this loosening of the federal purse strings might delay the Eldridge facility’s shutdown remains to be seen, though Gorin noted that the closure timeline for Agnews Developmental Center was extended a couple times. Agnews, located in Santa Clara, was finally closed in 2009, though the west campus of the facility was closed and sold to Sun Microsystems (now owned by Oracle) in 1998.

According to DDS assistant director of communications Nancy Lungren, the department can foresee no change in its Oct. 1 deadline for developing and submitting a closure plan to the Legislature. That plan must include a slew of information about the developmental center’s purpose and condition, its residents and their disabilities, plans for their continued care, plus “local issues, concerns, and recommendations regarding the proposed closure and alternative uses of the developmental center property.”

Many of those family and local concerns were raised last Saturday, June 27, at an informal four-hour meeting on the SDC campus with almost 20 representatives from Developmental Services and several regional centers, who would take up the slack in placing the current residents of SDC when it is eventually shut down.

And judging by the confusion over that meeting’s purpose, and its content, the road ahead could be a rocky one.

One after another, family members, guardians and conservators of SDC residents rose to complain about uncertainties over where their loved ones would end up, what quality of care they might receive under such a time-pressured transition, and questioned the state’s long-term commitment to the developmentally disabled, despite the $49 million budgeted this year to the transition.

“What about next year, and the year after that?” was an oft-repeated concern.

Absent from the near-full Wagner Hall meeting room at SDC, were board members from the Parents Hospital Association (PHA), the group of parent-guardian advocates who typically play an active role as spokespersons for SDC residents. One speaker suggested the PHA board was boycotting the meeting; however there were apparently several members present, and PHA’s president Kathleen Miller denied there was a group decision on the meeting.

“Most of us just chose not to attend, it was more of a personal choice,” said Miller. Her reasoning was that the meeting – called by Developmental Services director Santi Rogers a month earlier – was non-essential. “I still don’t know what the purpose of the meeting was,” Miller said. “Maybe they just wanted to tell families that everything would be fine, but I personally am not ready to receive that message. I need much more specificity, and I think that’s the case with most of the families.”

According to Lungren, “The purpose of Saturday’s meeting was an initial information session where the parents, guardians and conservators could have access to DDS, SDC and RC staff, (who would) field questions and hear their concerns since SB 82 budget bill was signed” by Gov. Brown on June 24, outlining the closure plan for the Sonoma Developmental Center.

But a dense calendar of meetings and hearings this summer has just begun. Lungren confirms that the next meeting will be held July 18, a full-day public hearing “on the transformation of the Sonoma Developmental Center” to be held at the Sonoma Valley High School Pavilion. That hearing is required by law to take testimony from stakeholders, without any obligatory response from the DDS, for inclusion in the closure plan to be submitted to the legislature on Oct. 1.

In addition, state Senator Mike McGuire – who introduced a bill earlier this year to keep SDC open; the bill was torpedoed by the announced closure – has two meetings scheduled in August: one on Aug. 13 for one-on-one meetings with SDC staff and parents; and one a week later, Aug. 20, a Community Town Hall hosted by Sen. McGuire, Assemblyman Bill Dodd and Supervisor Gorin. Both will again be held on the SDC campus at the Wagner Building.

“I think all these meetings are very confusing to a lot of our folks, who are older and have difficulty grasping what’s going on,” said Miller. “And they’re just frightened, you know.”

“I don’t blame them,” said Gorin. “They’re facing choices that they thought they were not going to have to make, especially within a tight timeline.”

Complicating the tight time frame to develop a closure plan is the pending retirement of Karen Faria, executive director of the Sonoma Developmental Center since April 2013.

Her brief tenure has not been without controversy; that’s inevitable given the turmoil surrounding the state’s developmental centers in the past few years. Her retirement coincides with the Oct. 1 deadline for the DDS presentation to the legislature, though her reasons are family related.

Regardless of her departure, the respect that family and guardians of the SDC residents have for the staff of the Sonoma facility is high – as is the challenges that residents face when they are forced to leave.

“My sister is 61, she was 4 years old when she moved there,” said former Santa Rosa City Attorney Brien Farrell. “She has no speech, she has anxiety, she has cerebral palsy, she has depth perception problems … And she knows the staff where she lives, because most of them have worked there 10 to 25 years.”

Like Farrell, several other speakers at last Saturday’s meeting bemoaned the fact that the caregivers their family members have come to trust, and who gave them the best care that might be possible, could lose their role.

And while their skills might be transferred by training, their compassion could not.

Santi Rogers and others in the Department of Developmental Services have at several points insisted that maintaining positions for current staff, and enhanced services for residents being transitioned to other facilities, are embedded in plans for SDC’s closure.

But there remains skepticism on the part of families, conservators and other stakeholders about the state’s pledges.

“They’re not collaborating,” said Farrell. “They’re proceeding like a cold heartless bureaucracy that has a checklist of things that must be done, that they’re just ‘doing what’s required.’ Doing what’s required is not the right thing, doing what’s required is not collaborative.

“We got off to a very poor start.”

The DDS has started a web portal to contain all relevant information on closure plan for the Sonoma Developmental Center, atdds.ca.gov/SonomaNews/index.cfm

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