AARP and the state have agreed on a plan that requires Florida to spend up to $27 million in the coming year to move thousands of poor elderly residents from nursing homes to community-based programs.
AARP on Thursday announced what it called "a step forward" in the form of an agreement in a class-action suit it filed last year against Gov. Charlie Crist's Department of Elder Affairs and the Agency for Health Care Administration, which runs the state's Medicaid program.
"We now will have a system in place to be sure that these individuals can transition into a home environment," said Lori Parham of AARP, the advocacy group for seniors.
The lawsuit accused the state of discriminating against adult Medicaid residents with various disabilities by preventing them from moving out of nursing homes into less restrictive community settings, which cost less money.
AHCA general counsel Justin Senior said the agreement between the two sides was not a settlement. Rather, he said, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle agreed to put the lawsuit "in abeyance" for up to a year while the state implements a transition program for Medicaid nursing home patients.
"We're allowed to set up a transition program, so that everybody in our system is treated in the least restrictive system possible," Senior said.
He said the terms of the deal give the judge the authority to order a trial if the state fails to implement the new program.
Holly Benson, secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, and Doug Beach, secretary of the Department of Elder Affairs, signed a 13-page document entitled "Settlement Agreement," which requires the two officials to ask the Legislature in 2010 and 2011 for money to fund the transition program.
If the lawsuit is dismissed before a trial, the state must pay AARP $400,000 to cover the group's legal fees and expenses.
About 40,000 Florida Medicaid patients are in nursing homes, although that number fluctuates daily, the AHCA said. The agency said that about 8,000 patients, or one-fifth of the total Medicaid nursing home population, is seeking to move into home- or community-based care at any point in time.