The federal government took the only recourse available by finally asking the courts to end Florida's shameful practice of warehousing disabled children in nursing homes. For two years, Gov. Rick Scott's administration has made clear that it had no intention of changing course on a policy that punishes children with complex medical needs and keeps them from their homes, families and communities. If Florida won't comply with the antidiscrimination laws, then it falls to the federal government and the courts.
The Justice Department's civil rights division sued the state Monday, alleging that nearly 200 children with disabilities were being "segregated unnecessarily" in nursing homes because of the state's "deliberate indifference" to providing them with lawfully required and more appropriate care at home or in community-based settings. The Americans With Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against people with special medical needs. And it bars states from isolating the disabled in medical settings that institutionalize them, denying them contact with family and friends and any opportunity for a normal life.
The federal complaint paints a terrible picture of the conditions these children live in and of the challenges that families face in getting the bureaucracy to act. The children housed in nursing homes reside in the equivalent of shared hospital rooms. Many are hundreds of miles from home. They spend their days in front of the television or in the company of elderly nursing home residents without any age-appropriate interaction that aids a child's development.
The homes have become a dumping ground, the complaint alleges, because Florida refuses to provide adequate home and community-based care. The state has cut aid to families and either reduced or limited community-based services even as it upped payments to nursing homes. One program allowing children to receive home-based care has a waiting list of 22,000 names. While the Legislature provided some relief for the coming year, that funding will relieve less than 5 percent of the backlog. And three years ago, lawmakers cut $6 million from private nursing care that serves as an alternative to institutional housing. The net result is that many families have no real choice: Nursing homes are a default because parents, grandparents and siblings don't have the resources, training or confidence to manage a child's chronic medical condition.
Liz Dudek, secretary of the state's Agency for Health Care Administration, released a one-paragraph statement Monday that was nonresponsive to the substance of the government's suit. She chose instead to play politics and frame the complaint as another imposition by the big, bad Obama administration. The state needs to get serious. The Justice Department has looked into this matter for nearly two years. In late 2012, it found the state in violation of the ADA, and worked with Florida to settle the case. Dudek's reaction Monday seems to underscore the Justice Department's contention that Florida will not comply with the ADA voluntarily. That leaves it to the federal government and the courts to ensure that the nation's antidiscrimination laws actually work for the people who need them. They need to keep up the pressure on Florida.