Judge signs off on order moving young Mainers with disabilities out of nursing homes

Eric Reeves (right) makes a joke during an interview at Penobscot Nursing Home. Reeves and fellow nursing home resident Jake Van Meter sued the state because their only living option was the nursing home. They both contended that living amidst people who are at the end stage of life is depressing for them.
Eric Reeves (right) makes a joke during an interview at Penobscot Nursing Home. Reeves and fellow nursing home resident Jake Van Meter sued the state because their only living option was the nursing home. They both contended that living amidst people who are at the end stage of life is depressing for them. Buy Photo
Posted May 03, 2012, at 10:26 a.m.
Last modified May 03, 2012, at 8:37 p.m.
Jake Van Meter smiles during an interview at Penobscot Nursing Home in December 2009. Van Meter and fellow nursing home resident Eric Reeves sued the state because their only living option was the nursing home. They both contended that living amidst people who are at the end stage of life is depressing for them.
Jake Van Meter smiles during an interview at Penobscot Nursing Home in December 2009. Van Meter and fellow nursing home resident Eric Reeves sued the state because their only living option was the nursing home. They both contended that living amidst people who are at the end stage of life is depressing for them. Buy Photo

BANGOR, Maine — Eric Reeves has the same goals as most people: graduating high school, earning a college degree and securing a job. But his biggest goal is moving out of Eastside Rehabilitation and Living Center.

“I am 35 years old,” said Reeves, who has cerebral palsy. “I don’t belong in a nursing home. It’s a good place when you need it but I just want to be with people my age.”

Following a class-action lawsuit settlement signed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, Reeves and others who have physical disabilities will have a chance at a more normal life. Reeves was one of three men who sued the Maine Department of Health and Human Services in 2009. The suit alleged that DHHS, in the operation of the MaineCare program, which is the state’s version of Medicaid, violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Nursing Home Reform Act by not providing federally mandated services that promote independence and community involvement.

“It will allow me to be out in the community a lot more,” said Reeves during a telephone interview with the Bangor Daily News on Thursday. “I’m just really glad that people with other physical disabilities, and not so much mental disabilities, will be getting the help that we need.”

The case, filed in U.S. District Court in Bangor in 2009, was granted class-action status and grew to include more than 40 members. The settlement signed Thursday was reached last year and approved by U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen on Wednesday.

“The resolution achieves what our clients wanted from the state — a chance to live independently in the community and not be segregated from their peers,” said Jack Comart, the litigation director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, which helped bring the suit. “Commissioner Mary Mayhew, shortly after taking office in 2011, expressed her openness to resolving this case, and we appreciate the work that she and her team have done to help make this settlement possible.”

Staci Converse, an attorney for the Disability Rights Center in Augusta, which filed the lawsuit in conjunction with Maine Equal Justice Partners, said there are at least 121 individuals in Maine who will benefit from the settlement. Most of them have epilepsy, cerebral palsy or related conditions, which are defined in federal law.

“The thrust is to get people out of nursing homes and give them the option of living in the community,” said Converse. “Federal law has an integration mandate so people can live in the least-restrictive environment, so they can live in their communities.”

Linda Elliott of Ellsworth, the mother of 28-year-old plaintiff Jake Van Meter, who lives at the Cortland Rehabilitation and Living Center in Ellsworth, said the problem with nursing homes for people with her son’s challenges is that their goal in most cases is not to promote progression toward independence.

“You can’t take a young person and put him in the same setting as an 80- or 90-year-old and expect a different outcome,” said Elliott in a press release.

Under the settlement, the department has committed to obtaining a Home and Community Based Waiver from the federal agency that oversees Maine’s program, and over the course of the next five years it will offer at least 75 people with cerebral palsy, epilepsy and other related conditions the chance to live in the community rather than in nursing homes.

Reeves said in addition to completing his education and securing a job — perhaps working with computers — he just wants more of a “normal life.”

“Friends call me and say, ‘Hey, can I come over?’” said Reeves. “Yes, they can come over now, but most of my friends don’t like to because I am in a nursing home. I want to be able to tell my friends, ‘Hey, come on over to my new pad. We’ll have a quiet place where we can actually sit down and talk and chill out.’”

Reeves said he hopes to move into some sort of assisted-living apartment of his own. He said he was pleased with the settlement of the class-action suit, but there’s another milestone coming that will be even better.

“You know what would be happier? The day when they tell me that you know what, you can move out on your own and that yes, you have problems but there is a system to back you up if you need help,” he said. “This proves that if you fight long enough and hard enough, good things will happen. I am living proof.”

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