Disabled children don't belong in nursing homes for the aged

November 30, 2012 

Here's how the state of Florida justifies its practice of warehousing severely medically challenged children in nursing homes:

"They are strictly regulated to ensure that the appropriate services are provided specifically for children," noted part of a defensive statement from the state Agency for Health Care Administration. "They provide a safe, secure and enriching environment for the children in their care."

State health officials, then, might deign to consider Doris Freyre's experience: Marie, her profoundly disabled daughter, was sent to a nursing home at the insistence of social workers. Marie was 14. The Tampa mom had lovingly cared for her at home since birth.

Marie died in that Miami Gardens nursing home, struggling to breathe. None of the staff members thought enough to call a doctor.

It is beyond reason that the state is waging a pitched battle with the U.S. Department of Justice, which has slammed this policy of stashing "medically fragile" children and teens in nursing homes.

The state and nursing-home advocates insist that the policy works in the best interests of extremely medically needy children and their families. The Florida Health Care Association says that the children get education and medical attention specific to their needs. In some cases, that's probably the case.

But records obtained by The Miami Herald show that there definitely is a problem. A constantly playing television is about the only "socialization" that the children are getting. Playrooms, such as they are, have no toys; there are no trips to a park. Too many kids are receiving no education whatsoever.

And Florida residents are paying for this substandard, and sometimes inhumane, treatment. In fact, state taxpayers are paying a lot:

Florida pays nursing homes about $213 a day to care for a frail elderly person, records show. But the state will reimburse homes more than $506 a day to care for a child. The needs of a profoundly disabled child might indeed outpace those of a senior in such a facility. But why pay nursing homes so grandly to let a child snooze in front of the TV?

Florida has cut millions of dollars from programs that help parents take care of their challenged children at home, as Freyre had done; and in an even more misguided move, it has rejected $40 million in federal funds that would have helped these children remain in or return home to their parents -- for less than $506 a day, in many cases.

No doubt, there are many families who, with all the help in the world, couldn't safely care for a medically challenged child themselves. But the state has discouraged, rather than enhanced, the availability of facilities that can truly give the children what they need.

Who is the state really serving here? Let's see: The U.S. Justice Department is appalled at the policy; many parents want to care for their children at home, but the state won't help them. Still, the state swears putting the children in nursing homes is the right thing to do and, oh yes, the nursing home industry is thrilled with the lucrative arrangement.

We get it.

Florida is wasting time and money challenging the feds and paying dearly for inadequate, sometimes harmful, nursing-home care.

Florida lawmakers can redirect these funds, miraculously available to warehouse children in nursing homes, and use them to restore funds to help keep kids who will benefit at home or in the appropriate child-focused facility.

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