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Lawmakers Back Disabilities Change, Get Contributions

the Florida state capitol building
The Florida Channel
Two legislators have sponsored bills that would allow new institutions to be built for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Two legislators who have sponsored bills that would allow new institutions to be built for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities received campaign contributions from the president of a company that would benefit from the legislation.

Sunrise Community President and CEO Zach Wray wrote checks to political committees led by Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, and Rep. Colleen Burton, R- Lakeland, on Jan. 13, the eve of the start of the 2020 legislative session, campaign-finance records show.

Wray wrote a $1,000 check to the committee Friends of Gayle Harrell and an $800 check to the committee Friends of Colleen Burton.

Harrell and Burton told The News Service of Florida on Sunday that they were not aware of the contributions and denied that the checks played a role in their decision to sponsor the bills.

“I had no idea,” said Burton, sponsor of the House version of the bill (HB 1163). “To me, that's just circumstance, I'm sure.”

Harrell, sponsor of the Senate version (SB 1344), said she also was unaware of the contribution. The Senate approved her bill in a 30-8 vote on Monday, sending it to the House.

“I really pay no attention to that,” Harrell said. “I don’t even know who has contributed to me. I make a point of not knowing.”

Both lawmakers said they are sponsoring the bills to increase choices for families of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. The state has put an emphasis on allowing people to remain in their homes, a less expensive alternative than institutionalization, and existing facilities --- known as intermediate care facilities for people with developmental disabilities, or ICFDDs --- are near capacity.

The bills would create an exemption from the state’s certificate-of-need regulatory process for new institutions that meet specific criteria. The so-called CON process typically requires state approval of new projects.

Under the bill, the new institutions would need to have a total of 24 beds, composed of three eight-bed homes on a single campus, for individuals exhibiting severe maladaptive behaviors and co-occurring psychiatric diagnoses. The homes would be required to have private bedrooms and bathrooms. Medical and nursing care would need to be provided around the clock, and at least 16 of the beds would have to be dedicated to people who have severe maladaptive behaviors.

To obtain an exemption, an applicant could not have had a license denied, revoked or suspended within the 36 months before the request for exemption and must have at least 10 years of experience serving people with severe maladaptive behaviors in Florida.

Initially, the bills would have granted a permanent CON exemption allowing for new institutions to be built every two years. But the House and Senate have agreed to limit the proposed CON exemption to a two-year period, expiring on July 1, 2022.

Also, the bills were changed to limit the number of exemptions that could be granted to three.

Burton and Harrell maintain that any provider who meets the qualifications could open a new institution, but lobbyists for the Florida Association of Rehabilitation Facilities, acknowledged Sunrise Community, Inc., a non-profit organization headquartered in Miami, is spearheading the legislation.

The configuration of the new institutions required in the bills also would match what Sunrise in 2018 proposed to build in Region 6, which includes Hardee, Highlands, Hillsborough, Manatee and Polk counties. Ultimately, the state Agency for Health Care Administration denied Sunrise’s CON application.

But Harrell on Monday said “there was not intent for this to be a single source.”

In addition to Harrell’s bill, the CON exemption proposal is included in a bill (SB 82) sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, that would make changes in the Medicaid-funded iBudget program for people with disabilities. The Senate also voted 37-2 on Monday to approve that bill.