June 25, 2018
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Protect advocacy for people with disabilities

By Richard Estabrook, Special to the BDN

Thirty-seven years ago, staff lived on campus at the Augusta Mental Health Institute. During a psychologist’s move from one residence to another, a box fell and out spilled pictures of female patients in compromising positions.

The matter was quietly covered up. But, as is so often the case, the truth emerged.

Legislators were angry that they had not been informed. It is a sad but incontrovertible fact of bureaucratic life that any administration of any political stripe will hide, bury, or massage information detrimental to itself.

Recognizing that fact, the Legislature created the Office of Advocacy. Its stated duty is to be a voice for people with intellectual disabilities and autism served by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Now, LD 1887 has been introduced as one of the flurry of proposals to come before the Legislature in the last days of the session. It will “restructure” DHHS and in doing so eliminate the Office of Advocacy and contract out its responsibilities.

The OOA has special anti-retaliatory protections — or, Maine law says that it is protected from retaliation from DHHS — and this bill is an end run around those protections. Supposedly this move will save taxpayers money, but in fact it is a bad deal for Maine.

The state will pay the same amount it now pays for advocacy, but receive less — a lot less — from the federal government. The state will give up 45 percent of the funding for the office, which comes from federal dollars.

It’s like trading in your expensive car for a cheap one, but keeping the payments the same. Undoubtedly, the proponents of LD 1887 were hoping that these small details would be lost in a 48-page bill, but they were wrong.

The deal is even worse for Maine. The staff of the present OOA has an average of over 15 years per advocate experience, and five of the eight advocates have a law degree. That is invaluable as clients, families and providers all try to address the myriad problems that now affect the system of care for persons with intellectual disabilities and autism.

The system is under tremendous stress because of the budget and staff turnover. Over 1,000 people with disabilities are waiting for these services, and they don’t have anybody else to advocate for them. To rely on a smaller corps of new and inexperienced advocates would harm the people the system serves.

The vast knowledge of clients, families and providers the existing advocates have is a priceless resource. This so-called “institutional” knowledge is necessary to the success of our advocacy efforts.

LD 1887 would throw this priceless knowledge of the advocates to the wind. No reasonable person can be in favor of a bill that eliminates federal financial support, delivers less and in the bargain destroys a valuable asset.

We are capable of working through the challenges to our system of care, but we must work together, and, above all else, we must reason together.

The founders of our government had faith in us. Now we must act to justify that faith. Let’s put aside LD 1887 and the divisiveness it engenders and instead reason together and work together with intelligence and resolve to protect advocacy services.

Maine’s citizens with intellectual disabilities and autism deserve no less.

Richard Estabrook is chief advocate for the Office of Advocacy and has served in that position since 1985. He has worked on both the AMHI and Pineland/Community consent decrees brought against the state of Maine.

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