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Deal reached to preserve Sonoma Developmental Center’s federal funding

State officials overseeing Sonoma Developmental Center announced Wednesday that they have reached an agreement that secures continued federal Medicaid funding for the Eldridge facility while state officials move forward with plans to permanently close the center.

The deal shelves state action that threatened to decertify seven patient units at the facility and strip their Medicaid funding over state findings that care for hundreds of disabled patients was deficient and unsafe. Sonoma Developmental Center officials fought the decertification plan, touting in their appeal last year “major improvements” caring for clients.

At stake was a significant amount of money - representing more than a third of the developmental center’s total annual expenses, according to figures provided Wednesday by the state Department of Developmental Services, which oversees the center.

The federal Medicaid program, which is administered in California through Medi-Cal, covers as much as 50 percent of the cost for patients who qualify. As of mid-March, 154 patients qualify for Medi-Cal at the center, which received $52 million in Medicaid funding in the fiscal year 2013-2014.

Overall, the center is home to 394 developmentally disabled residents.

The deal will not forestall the planned closure of the Sonoma Valley facility, one three remaining developmental centers in the state that care for people with severe mental and physical disabilities. The funding will be used to help with the transition of residents into community-based homes and programs, officials said.

“The agreement aids in the efforts for a safe transition of residents from Sonoma to the community,” Santi Rogers, director of the state Department of Developmental Services, said in a statement.

Rogers said the federal funding will help the department transform the Sonoma facility as described in a plan produced by a special task force that investigated the future of the state’s developmental centers.

He said plans included the development of new community-based living arrangements, or “other appropriate alternate settings through a closure plan specific to Sonoma.”

He said the plan will be presented to the Legislature by Oct. 1. The settlement agreement, he said, includes provisions for the department to work with consultants to monitor Sonoma’s compliance with the agreement.

The consultants will monitor transition activities and post-move activities “to assure quality care once individuals have transitioned to community settings,” he said.

The independent monitor must report back every other month to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the state Department of Public Health to make sure the Sonoma center is complying with the conditions of the agreement.

The deal covers up to two years, with the potential to extend it thereafter by an additional year.

In May, Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled a plan to close the Sonoma facility by 2018 and spend nearly $50 million to transition residents into community-based homes and programs. Two other centers, Fairview Developmental Center in Southern California and Porterville Developmental Center in the Central Valley, also are scheduled to be closed by 2021 under Brown’s plan.

There are about 1,100 people living in the state’s three remaining developmental centers, a figure that represents less than 1 percent of the state’s total caseload.

Advocates of developmental centers argue the facilities maintain a vital role in caring for the ?hardest-to-treat cases.

The Sonoma center also has more than 1,300 employees, making it Sonoma Valley’s largest employer.

A Sonoma County coalition led by Supervisor Susan Gorin has launched an intensive review of potential uses for nearly 1,000 acres of the prime real estate and buildings that make up the center should the state close the facility. The group’s stated mission is to preserve as much open space as possible in the transition while maintaining some level of service on-site for disabled clients.

Brown’s plan to close the facility leans on the work of a state task force that concluded the state should operate a limited number of smaller, safety-net crisis and residential services as opposed to more expensive institutions.

In the summer of 2012, in the aftermath of media reports of abuse and shoddy police work inside the state’s developmental centers, the state Public Health Department completed a Medicaid compliance survey and found “deficiencies negatively affecting the health and safety” of Sonoma Developmental Center clients, according to the settlement agreement reached this week.

Subsequent Medicaid compliance surveys in late 2012 and 2014 found continuing noncompliance violations. The state then sought to decertify seven of the 11 units within the center’s intermediate care facility.

The deficiencies ranged from exposing developmental center clients to environmental hazards, such as an overgrown bush outside a day program that swarmed with bees, to more serious problems such as inadequate protection of clients from abuse, failure to keep accurate medical records or to follow proper medication protocols.

Supporters who advocate keeping the center open have said that the alleged deficiencies are merely a justification for the state’s campaign to close the facility.

In 2013, the center gave up efforts to keep federal funding for four intermediate care units that at the time served 112 seriously disabled patients. The agreement reached this week does not affect that decision, which resulted in a loss of about $13 million annually that helped cover patient treatment costs.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@?pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

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