Murray Center's future to be decided by federal judge

News-DemocratJanuary 4, 2014 

The way Illinois cares for its citizens who have developmental disabilities will be argued this week in a federal courtroom, as a judge decides whether the state can close its Warren G. Murray Developmental Center in Centralia.

Should cash-strapped Illinois be required to provide the high level of services offered at state-run mental institutions such as Murray Center? Or should the state be allowed to spread its limited resources among a growing number of people who need assistance, by placing them in smaller, lower-cost, privately-run homes?

If those weren't high enough stakes, consider that hundreds of good-paying state jobs are on the line, in an area where unemployment is already high.

Starting Tuesday in federal court in Chicago, U.S. District Judge Marvin Aspen will hear testimony and arguments on whether the state Department of Human Services is following federal law in closing Murray Center. The judge has set aside three days for hearing the case, then will issue a ruling later.

The lawsuit was filed by the Murray Parent Association, which has poured about $80,000 so far into legal fees, with part of the money coming from a worker union.

Judy Sherwin, the attorney for the parent group, said the lawsuit isn't just about keeping Murray Center open.

"This lawsuit does not have as narrow a focus as the state would like to say it has. This is about people's rights. This is about how we treat the developmentally disabled," Sherwin said.

She added, "This is important to the people of the state of Illinois. It's a very important public question that we're going to be litigating: How do we treat the people who are developmentally disabled?"

The suit 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 plaintiffs say some Murray Center residents' disabilities are so severe that they require institutionalization, rather than the state's proposed alternative -- group homes which are privately run but publicly financed.

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."

Sherwin said the case "is a civil righs case brought by people who feel this process they've been forced to go through is violating their civil rights."

Murray Center at one point was home to about 270 adults with developmental disabilities. The population now is about 225, because some residents already have been moved.

The state's projected date for closing the center had been Nov. 30, but litigation has pushed it back.

The parent group has held various fundraisers, such as raffles and dinners, to bankroll the lawsuit, according to Rita Winkeler, the group's president.

"I believe thus far we have spent probably $80,000," Winkeler said. That includes donations from Friends of Murray Center, one of which was $20,000. Friends of Murray Center, which is not a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit, consists of Murray Center union members and other supporters.

The center has a staff of about 530, most of them union members.

Here's a sampling of some of the top salaries being earned by employees with various job titles:

* Maintenance equipment operator, $75,000

* Mental health technician, $78,000

* Stationary fireman, $107,000

* Painter, $64,000

* Electrician, $90,000

* Stationary engineer, $112,000.

The state says the cost to run Murray Center was nearly $39 million in 2013. The state also says placing residents in group homes is less expensive -- about $120,000 per year versus about $239,000 annually at Murray Center.

Murray Center supporters dispute the figures, and add that private care is cheaper because it's inferior. They point to a blistering report issued by Stewart Freeman, a court-appointed guardian for a handful of Murray Center residents. Freeman's report on his visits to some group homes, where some Murray Center residents have already been transferred, found overworked staffs and unsafe conditions. For example, workers at one home went to a store and bought Ensure to pour down a resident's feeding tube because the home ran out of the resident's doctor-prescribed nutrition, according to Freeman.

Lawyers for Attorney General Lisa Madigan, representing DHS, argue in their defense that the state's health professionals are the ones who should determine what type of care the state provides for people with developmental disabilities. And the state has to make those decisions with a limited budget, they argue.

The state argues in its defense: "The budget of DHS's Division of Development Disabilities is intended to serve not only the individuals currently residing at Murray, but also the 22,975 who are on a waiting list for community-based services. The state has a duty to mete out its programs and services for disabled individuals in an equitable fashion. Diverting services, supports, and funds to plaintiffs regardless of their medical need, and at the expense of other disabled individuals, would be inequitable, unreasonable, and unjust."

The state also argues that money isn't the only issue. DHS contends that most people with developmental disabilities would have a better quality of life in private, community-based residential units, rather than in institutions.

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."

It'll likely be at least a couple of weeks before the judge issues a ruling. For one thing, he's allowing five days for affidavits to be filed after the end of testimony and arguments.

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

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