Advocate for People with Disabilities Leery of Oversight Amendment
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Sen. Mark Romanchuk (R-Columbus)

Ohio’s federally designated advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, Disability Rights Ohio (DRO), is pushing back against a draft budget amendment on legislative oversight of its work, saying the proposal jeopardizes federal funding and undermines its ability to fulfill the responsibilities it was created to accomplish. Sen. Mark Romanchuk (R-Ontario), who’s pursuing the amendment, says he sought the change because of DRO’s practice of meeting with people who have profound intellectual disabilities to discuss their service settings without their parents or guardians.

By designation of the governor’s office, DRO provides the state’s protection and advocacy system (P&A) and client assistance program (CAP), two functions required for Ohio to be able to receive federal funding for people with disabilities. The amendment, also discussed in the previous budget cycle, would create a six-member joint legislative committee to examine operation of the P&A and CAP and consider whether a new organization should be designated to fulfill those roles. The committee’s report would be delivered to legislative leaders, the governor and the Joint Medicaid Oversight Committee.

“Let us have an opportunity to ask you questions about certain parts of your conduct, why you’re doing what you’re doing,” said Romanchuk.

“I’m concerned with the erosion of parental rights and guardian rights,” he said, referencing DRO’s meetings with people served in intermediate care facilities (ICFs) to discuss leaving the facilities to receive home- and community-based care.

DRO was created to assume the P&A and CAP functions from Ohio Legal Rights Service, a state agency. Achieving full independence from state government was a driving factor in the move.

“When it was created, it was designed to be a completely independent advocate for people with disabilities, and it needs to be completely independent from the state service system,” said Kerstin Sjoberg, executive director of DRO, describing the genesis of the P&A system decades ago in response to abusive institutional care.

This proposed committee would hamper that independence, she said, creating an “unprecedented” level of oversight for a nonprofit with no state funding. “This would make Ohio the only state in the country with this type of legislative oversight,” she said.

Sjoberg said the client meetings that sparked Romanchuk’s concerns involve informing individuals about waivers available for home- and community-based care, funding for which was expanded as a result of the settlement in Ball v. DeWine. Sjoberg said before DRO visits a facility for such discussions, it lets the facility know in advance and provides information that can be shared with guardians. She said they also sent information to lawmakers about this work in advance, and sought to publicize it in the media.

Sjoberg said the P&A system recognizes the independent voice of people with disabilities, even those deemed incompetent by a court. Further, she said, if a client with a guardian expresses interest in the waivers, then talking with that guardian is the next step, in recognition that the client couldn’t make the decision on their own.

“If they say, ‘No, we’re happy with where they are,’ then we’re done … It is only our role to provide information about their rights and their options,” she said.

Sjoberg said the committee oversight process would also divert time and resources from DRO’s main responsibilities, saying they have about 55-60 staff to cover the entire state, with tens of thousands of people with disabilities and thousands of facilities.

DRO fears the oversight committee’s intrusion on its independence could jeopardize more than $100 million in federal funding.

Romanchuk disputes that argument, pointing to an analysis by the Legislative Service Commission (LSC) concluding the amendment does not appear to violate federal law regarding redesignation of the P&A system. “We don’t have the power to redesignate a new entity. The Legislature doesn’t do that, the executive does that,” he said.

Sjoberg said the redesignation process is not the only facet of federal law relevant to maintaining DRO’s independence. She also shared a letter from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Administration for Community Living during discussions of the amendment in the prior budget cycle, which states the purpose and utility of the proposed committee was “unclear” and that it raised concern about “potential undue burden” on the P&A system.

“Ultimately, we do receive a lot of oversight from the federal government. They’re our primary funder, we have to do annual reports, and we have a lot of interaction with different granting agencies of the federal government,” Sjoberg said.

Romanchuk’s amendment, the LSC analysis of it and the HHS letter to DRO are posted at > Important Documents & Notices > Library.

Story originally published in The Hannah Report on May 17, 2021.  Copyright 2021 Hannah News Service, Inc.