MIAMI - The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Florida on Monday, accusing the state of unnecessarily keeping about 200 disabled children in nursing homes and cutting services that would allow them to receive care at home. Once they do get to the facility, federal officials said many stay for years, some literally grow up in a nursing home.
Federal investigators say they visited six nursing homes around the state and identified roughly 200 children who didn't need to be there and could benefit from being care for at home or in the community. But instead, the children languish in facilities, sharing common areas with elderly patients and having few interactions with others, rarely leaving the nursing homes or going outside. Investigators noted the children are not exposed to social, educational and recreational activities that are critical to child development. Educational opportunities are limited to as little as 45 minutes a day, according to the lawsuit.
Investigators also said Florida is violating the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and is infringing on the children's civil rights by segregating and isolating them. The average length of stay is three years, according to the lawsuit.
The federal government threatened a lawsuit in September if the state failed to make changes to the system, but Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Liz Dudek first denied the allegations, then repeatedly stated the problems had been fixed. In the past, Dudek stressed the agency does not limit medically necessary home health services and that parent ultimately decide where to put their children in a nursing home.
State health officials and Attorney General Pam Bondi did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.
Parents have said they have are desperately fighting to get services to keep their children at home.
"(The state) pressures parents to place parents in institutionalized settings and then give them no way to get out," said attorney Matthew Dietz, who filed a lawsuit two years ago against the state that mirrors the federal lawsuit.
He said the state has not addressed the issue, despite official claims.
The waiting list for services at home or in the community has jumped from 14,629 in 2005 to more than 21,000 in 2012, with more than half waiting longer than five years. Currently, state policy does not give priority on the waiting list to children in nursing homes, federal officials said.
At the same time, the state turned down nearly $40 million in federal funds for a program that transitions people from nursing homes back into the community. The state has also been paying community-based providers less, reducing payments by 15 percent last year because of legislative budget cuts. Yet the state implemented policies that expanded nursing home care by offering facilities a $500 enhanced daily rate for caring f or children, which is more than double than what the state pays for adults, according to federal investigators.