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Federal judge accepts state's plan to integrate people with disabilities

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After nearly four years, several revisions and numerous court filings, a federal judge approved the Minnesota Olmstead Plan Tuesday, giving people with disabilities a clearer vision for how the state would integrate them within the community.

U.S. District Judge Donovan Frank said the latest version of the Olmstead plan submitted in August emphasizes key changes including concrete data, specific timelines to establish measurable goals and added commitments that make the plan an "evolving document."

But Frank also recognized that some individuals fear the plan would eliminate certain programs or close facilities that provide services for people with disabilities.

"Many individuals with disabilities in this state value living and working alongside other individuals with disabilities in settings such as group homes and sheltered workshops," he wrote. "The Court emphasizes that the Olmstead decision is not about forcing integration upon individuals who choose otherwise or who would not be appropriately served in community settings."

In 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court decided it was unlawful to keep people with disabilities in institutions when they could live in the community. The case involved two women with mental disabilities who were forced to live in institutions despite their providers' approval to receive treatment outside.

As in other states, Minnesota is required to say how it will provide the means for people with disabilities to live as independently as possible, which it agreed to do in a 2011 court settlement, following a lawsuit over the use of restraints in a Cambridge facility.

State Ombudsman for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities, Roberta Opheim, said the newest version shows vast improvements, but she said some of the goals are still too modest. For example, the plan's goal to reduce the percentage of Anoka Metro Regional Treatment Center patients, who are ready to be integrated, from 35 to 30 percent by 2019 isn't enough.

"The fundamentals of Olmstead would indicate that you can't keep someone in an institutional setting simply because you have failed to develop an appropriate community alternative," she said.

But others hope that it will provide needed services for people with developmental and physical disabilities. Dawn Bly, a Fosston mother of a 19-year-old man who has severe cognitive delays, said the plan is comprehensive and speaks to "things I know I have fear of as a parent."

"It speaks to abuse and neglect," she said, "what is his day going to be as he moves out of my house to make sure nobody is taking advantage of him and if they are, how will we know?"

To come up with a framework that the federal court would accept, Gov. Mark Dayton put together a sub-cabinet. The Olmstead Sub-cabinet submitted three versions of the plan which Frank kicked back, citing lack of realistic commitments.

The approved Olmstead Plan has 13 topic areas that talk broadly about how employment, housing, education, transportation, health care and transition services would be provided.

"We have been very clear starting with the cover letter to the plan that this is a plan about choice and not about closure," Olmstead Subcabinet Chair Mary Tingerthal said.

The state's work is not done yet. It has to submit individual work plan documents for each of the 13 topic areas by Oct. 10.

Shamus O'Meara, an attorney representing people with disabilities, has concerns about how the state will implement the changes. He's also filed objections - which Frank took into consideration - saying the state doesn't completely prohibit the use of restraint and seclusion in its plan.

"There is a lot to be done, the plan is a document," O'Meara said. "The real measure of success of this type of plan is how it's implemented and is it going to be affecting people with disabilities in a positive way or is it doing something else."