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More Georgians will leave institutions 

State funding makes it easier to fulfill Supreme Court ruling

Amid the late-night struggles to finalize the state budget at the end of this year's General Assembly, lobbyists working to protect the rights of disabled people got a ray of hope: more funding to help the institutionalized learn to live independently.

In a budget marked by tight purse strings when it came to paying for social services, the Legislature approved a significant increase in funding to move people with developmental disabilities out of institutions and into communities.

Many disabled people -- such as Rhonda Davidson, who suffers from schizophrenia -- had to fight for years to live on their own, despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that guarantees them that right. For six years, Davidson was told what to wear, what to eat and when to go to sleep. But now that she lives in an apartment in Warner Robins (where she receives assistance several times a day), she can shop at the mall, make pancakes in the morning, and crawl into bed whenever she wants.

With more than 6,400 individuals like Davidson waiting to receive community-based care in Georgia, lawmakers finally woke up to the need for such services, says Dave Blanchard, director of public policy for the Atlanta Alliance on Developmental Disabilities.

"We've been working real hard on this issue, and our legislators listened," Blanchard says. "It's an issue that's bipartisan and one place where no one disagrees. We need to serve this population."

Blanchard says his organization, with help from more than 300 other disability-rights groups, brought institutionalized people to the Gold Dome to share their stories with legislators.

"We're finally learning how to build supports in the community," Blanchard says.

The 2007 state budget will pay for more than 1,400 individuals to receive community-based care. That's a 51 percent jump from the 925 individuals who received such funding last year -- and a monumental change from the mere 100 people assisted in 2003.

Under a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, states must allow mentally and physically disabled people to leave a state institution or nursing home if a doctor believes they are capable of living in the community. To deny them the right to live in the community amounts to segregation.

Yet Georgia, the birthplace of that Supreme Court case, is among the slowest states when it comes to moving patients out of institutions and into community-based settings. Some patients have waited more than two decades to move.

What's more, a 2005 University of Colorado study shows that community-based care per patient costs the government less than half the amount it spends on institutionalizing a person. The state of Georgia spends an average of $82,358 per year to pay for an institutionalized individual, while it spends $35,403 on a person living in independent-care facilities.

"Moving people to the community is less expensive, and it's what people want," Blanchard says. "It's simply good policy."

MORE INFO: To read about Rhonda Davidson and the 1999 Supreme Court ruling, visit atlanta.creativeloafing.com/trapped.

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