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Disabled sue FL in federal court over waiting list

Gov. Rick Scott and two state agencies have been hit with a class-action lawsuit alleging Florida has failed to provide needed services to 19,000 disabled people who are stuck on a waiting list.

An advocacy group and five named plaintiffs --- who have developmental disabilities such as mental retardation and cerebral palsy --- filed the lawsuit last week in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee.

The lawsuit centers on a waiting list for what are known as home- and community-based services, which help disabled people live outside of institutions. The lawsuit contends that the state is violating federal law and that some people have been on the waiting list for more than five years.

"Plaintiffs have been placed on waiting lists for enrollment ... where they languish for years without services, thereby placing them at risk of institutionalization and regression of skills and therapies learned from educational programs,'' said the lawsuit, filed by lawyers for the advocacy group, Disability Rights Florida.

The suit names as defendants Scott, Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Elizabeth Dudek and interim Agency for Persons with Disabilities director Brian Vaughan.

Shelisha Coleman, an AHCA spokeswoman, said in an e-mail this morning that her agency does not comment on pending litigation. Health News Florida was also seeking comment from the governor's office and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

The waiting list is part of a long-running debate in Tallahassee about the home- and community-based services program. Lawmakers and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities --- which manages much of the program --- have taken a series of steps in recent years to try to hold down rising costs, including limiting certain services.

Despite those attempts, the program has run large deficits. A House budget proposal released last week, for example, includes $169 million to cover a deficit this year.

The lawsuit focuses on people who are not able to fully take care of themselves and need varying levels of services to live in their communities. In many cases, the people live with family members.

But the lawsuit says that only people considered in "crisis" have been taken off the waiting list during the past five years and been added to the program. That can happen, for instance, when people become homeless or are considered dangers to themselves or others.

The lawsuit alleges Florida is violating the American with Disabilities Act, which requires efforts to integrate disabled people into communities. Federal law also is involved because the home- and community-based services program is run through what is known as a "waiver" to the Medicaid program.

Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail at jim.saunders@healthnewsflorida.org.