The link to a copy of the letter is here, graciously hosted by the Arc of Virginia. This is a statement to Governor McDonnell about events that were investigated under Governor Kaine but existed for years before that. It references an investigation by the Department of Justice regarding Virginia’s mental health systems compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the landmark Olmstead ruling.

To be blunt, Virginia’s system for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (including autism) is in a shambles. I’m sure this isn’t news to any parents of kids affected by these services, but it is still disappointing. Key elements of the letter include our large numbers of people in institutions, inadequate community supports and the violation of civil liberties of people in institutions. That one really chaps my hindquarters. In fact, I almost stood up at my computer and cheered when I read this bit about restraints. “The right to be free from undue bodily restraint is the core of the liberty interest protected from arbitrary governmental action by the Due Process clause…” Well said, DOJ.

The main finding is that the Commonwealth has failed to provide a community based services statewide. All the other findings are supportive of this statement. In my experience this problem is systemic, and is the result of years of poor planning by our governors and general assembly. We have cut our disability budget and failed to invest in our services not just during the lean years but also during the boom years. We were one of the most prosperous states in the country throughout the early part of this century yet we still failed to invest. Why is that?

Yes, I said governors. McDonnell is not the only one to blame for this. I blame Tim Kaine. I blame George Allen. I blame Mark Warner. Although some governors have made some investments, notably Warner, none have done enough. The National Alliance on Mental Illness gave our state a “D” for disability services. That was for their 2006 report. In 2009 they gave us a C. Is a C good enough? Not by a long shot. Not for our kids and adults who are most vulnerable. Also, these problems didn’t pop up overnight. They’ve been building for years.

Blame time is over. Court is out of session and we’ve been found guilty. Now we have to find the money, during one of our worst budget years in the history of the state. The good news? The Governor has seen the light! Community based services, in addition to being better for the person, are also cheaper than institutional care. How much cheaper? According to the letter it takes about $194,000 to care for someone in an institution and the average waiver cost is $76,400. That’s right, its about 2/3 less expensive to care for someone in the community. DOJ wants us to find $30 million ASAP and another $30 million shortly thereafter.

Its an issue worth watching. The Governor has a trust fund bill in place, which probably won’t fly. Our senators have stepped up with a budget that works and finds the money in our existing account. The house of delegates is close behind with their budget. Its nice to see, now that the gauntlet has been thrown down, that our state elected officials can work together to find a solution. I want to point out, though, that families and advocates have been campaigning for these changes for decades. Why didn’t we invest the money voluntarily? Wouldn’t you feel better, as a Virginian, if you knew your state was doing the right thing, not because it was ordered by the federal government, but because it was the right thing to do?