By DAVE COLLINS
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Connecticut officials have agreed to stop housing dozens of mentally ill people in certain nursing homes, ending an eight-year legal fight over what advocates for the disabled called the needless institutionalization and isolation of the mentally ill.
The advocates and officials with three state agencies signed off three weeks ago on a proposed settlement of a federal class-action lawsuit, according to court records obtained Thursday by The Associated Press. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Alvin Thompson in Hartford scheduled a fairness hearing on the settlement for July 1.
The state Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington filed the lawsuit in 2006. They said hundreds of psychiatric patients in Connecticut were being forced to live in nursing homes in violation of the American with Disabilities Act and a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling saying that holding mentally ill people in “unjustified isolation” violates the ADA.
The plaintiffs said when the state closed and downsized state psychiatric hospitals years ago, officials failed to develop community services for people with mental illness. As a result, they said, several thousand people with serious mental illness were moved to nursing homes where they were needlessly isolated, segregated and institutionalized.
The lawsuit was filed against officials with the state departments of Social Services, Public Health and Mental Health and Addiction Services. The suit pertained to more than 200 mentally ill patients who were housed at three nursing homes: Chelsea Place Care Center in Hartford, Bidwell Care Center in Manchester and West Rock Health Care Center in New Haven. The New Haven facility has since closed.
“It’s taking a huge step forward,” James McGaughey, executive director of the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, said about the settlement. “It safeguards everybody’s interests and rights and, most importantly, it creates opportunities for these people to have very real chances to live in their own homes with appropriate supports.”
Some of the mentally ill people in the two remaining nursing homes named in the lawsuit already have been moved to their own apartments or other community settings. An exact number wasn’t available Thursday.
In the proposed settlement, agency officials do not admit to violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. They agreed to move mentally ill patients into community settings and provide them with services, if the patients are able to live in such locations and they agree to relocate. State officials agreed to move the eligible patients into the community within 18 months of the settlement’s approval.
People who would be affected by the settlement are being given until June 13 to submit their opinions on the proposed deal to the court.
Advocates for the elderly have expressed concerns for years about psychiatric patients living alongside elderly nursing home residents.
Three years before the lawsuit was filed, the practice of housing psychiatric patients at Connecticut nursing homes gained national attention when 16 people died in a Hartford nursing home after a mentally ill patient started a fire while playing with a lighter in her bed.
Since the lawsuit was filed, Connecticut has been better able to move people with mental illness out of nursing homes because of federal programs, said David Dearborn, a spokesman for the Department of Social Services.
One federal program, Money Follows the Person, has sent $63 million to Connecticut, which has used the money to move nearly 2,200 people out of nursing home care, including more than 200 diagnosed with mental illness, Dearborn said.
And a Medicaid waiver program has provided funding to provide services that help people with mental illness live in the community and stay out of more expensive nursing home care, Dearborn said.
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