Murray Center's fate is in judge's hands

News-DemocratSeptember 21, 2013 

The year-plus battle over the state's plan to close its Warren G. Murray Developmental Center will play out soon in a federal courtroom in Chicago.

U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen set aside three days beginning Oct. 1 to hear testimony and arguments from the state and supporters who want to keep open the Centralia center, which has been home to about 270 adults with developmental disabilities.

Aspen might have telegraphed his position Aug. 15 when he issued a ruling in a pretrial dispute over evidence. The judge scolded the parties' attorneys for having "little battles" that wasted time, and told them it was time to cooperate in finding common-sense resolutions.

"Plaintiffs concede that they cannot prevent Murray from closing, although that closure may be delayed by these proceedings. And so Murray ultimately will close if the state chooses to close it," Aspen wrote.

"Yet Illinois must close Murray in a manner consistent with its obligations under federal law, including Medicaid requirements," he added.

Murray supporters and parents say the judge's comments are not an indication of how he'll eventually rule.

Karen Kelly, of O'Fallon, who is a member of the Murray Parent Association and whose adult son resides at Murray, said: "The judge has said he's the one who's going to decide if Murray closes, not the state. That's the whole reason we're in federal court. Our hearing is the 1st, 2nd and 3rd of October, and there are no decisions made by the judge yet."

Januari Smith, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, said she's aware of the judge's comments, but she wouldn't speculate on the outcome of the hearing.

"We're anxious to get in there and state our case in front of the judge," Smith said, declining to discuss specifics of the case.

Another member of the parent group, Anita Becherer, said in an email to supporters that the state used the judge's comments in a "desperate" attack on the group. She said the state has accused the group of trying to raise money from the public for the lawsuit while knowing that the judge will close Murray.

"What he said is that the center could close, but that federal law has to be followed," Becherer said. "This is what our entire lawsuit is about. Federal laws are being violated, and we are proving it."

The state contends that most people with developmental disabilities would have a better quality of life in private, smaller, community-based residential units, rather than in institutions. The state also says placing residents in private centers is less expensive, about $120,000 per year versus about $239,000 per year at Murray Center. Murray supporters dispute the state's figures, and say the actual cost at Murray Center is about $142,000 per resident, per year.

Attorneys for the state, in one of their motions, argue: "Community placement is undoubtedly the modern approach to care. Indeed, 13 states no longer have any state-operated institutions housing 16 or more individuals. Community placement contemplates personal privacy and the basic freedom to make choices, such as when to go to bed and what to eat -- options often lacking in an institutionalized setting."

The state's argument continues: "In the current economic climate, when many states, including Illinois, are suffering severe difficulties, community placement is often half the cost of (institutional) placement, without any substantive change in the ability of the state to meet the particular needs of the individual. Transitioning Murray's residents to (private settings) could reduce the average cost by over $100,000 per individual annually."

The plaintiffs in the suit are the Murray Parents Association and the Illinois League of Advocates for the Developmentally Disabled, as well as a handful of individually-named family members of residents. Kelly is one of the named plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs contend that some Murray residents have disabilities so profound they couldn't reside safely outside an institution. They say the state is planning to close all seven of its developmental centers, including Murray, which would leave the residents without a place to go in Illinois if they're not accepted at private centers or if things don't work out for them at a private center.

The lawsuit alleges that closing Murray Center and other state-operated developmental centers would violate the residents' rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and would run afoul of federal Medicaid regulations.

The suit asks that the state be prohibited from closing state-operated developmental centers, or reducing the services they provide, "unless or until equivalent, appropriate replacement services are provided to prevent inappropriate hospitalization, injury or death to residents in violation of the developmentally disabled residents' rights under federal and state laws."

The state argues that it currently has no plans to close its other developmental centers, and the plaintiffs can't sue based on speculation that the state will close them. The state adds that it's not required to operate any developmental centers at all, much less a particular center.

In addition, the federal court doesn't have authority to second-guess the state's budgetary decisions, the state argues.

The U.S. Department of Justice weighed in on the case in the form of a "statement of interest" filed with the court.

"The statute, regulations, and established precedent do not support the plaintiffs' claim that the Americans with Disabilities Act gives them a right to remain in a particular institution and to stop the state's efforts to rebalance its service system toward community-based care," the DOJ stated.

"Plaintiffs' main argument is with the state of Illinois' purported plan to eliminate an entire category of services for state-operated development center residents with profound disabilities -- not the state's authority to close a particular institution," Judith Sherwin, an attorney for the plaintiffs, responded.

The state's projected date for closing Murray Center has been pushed back to Nov. 30.

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 618-239-2511.

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 618-239-2511.

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