Legislative analyst office: Close Sonoma Developmental Center within a decade

The recommendation drew swift condemnation from the North Coast’s legislative delegation and the head of the facility’s parents group.|

An influential California budget and policy agency is recommending that the Sonoma Developmental Center be closed within a decade and more than 400 residents moved out of the facility to save the state money and follow trends to care for the disabled in community settings.

The recommendation from the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, though not entirely groundbreaking, could carry substantial weight as the office acts as a key advisory body for lawmakers.

For that reason, the recommendation drew swift condemnation from the North Coast’s legislative delegation and the head of the facility’s parents group, who say that many of the alternatives to the Eldridge facility don’t provide equal care.

“You can’t just make it about the money and throw people in the community and, ‘Oh, job over,’?” said Kathleen Miller, president of Sonoma’s Parent Hospital Association. “It’s just an oversimplification of a very complex issue.”

That sentiment was echoed in a letter to the state analyst signed by the North Coast’s two state senators and three Assembly members, as well as Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, who represents the Sonoma Valley.

“You simply cannot put a dollar figure on the health and well-being of some of the neediest and most medically fragile people in our state,” the letter stated.

Sonoma Developmental Center is home to more than 400 patients, and employs about 1,200, making it Sonoma Valley’s largest employer. Calls to downsize or close the center for budget reasons or because of substandard patient care date back years, if not decades. But when it comes to policymaking, few voices are as influential as the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office.

The office made the recommendation to close the Sonoma center and Fairview Developmental Center in Orange County as part of its review of Gov. Jerry’s Brown’s proposed 2015-16 budget for an array of state human services agencies. Brown is seeking $515 million from the state’s general fund for the state’s three development centers, representing an 8.5 percent funding decrease over the prior fiscal year.

The legislative analyst’s report noted that the 1,100 people who reside in the state’s remaining developmental centers represent less than 1 percent of the state’s total caseload. The average annual cost of treating a patient at a center is $500,000. The federal Medicaid program, which is administered in California through Medi-Cal, covers as much as half of the cost for patients who qualify.

The Sonoma facility also has been wracked by problems ranging from deficient client care to abuse.

The center in 2013 voluntarily withdrew federal certification for four units in the intermediate care facility, costing it $13 million annually in federal funding that had to be made up by the state’s general fund. The center currently is fighting to maintain federal certification for the remaining seven units in the intermediate care facility.

By contrast, an estimated 288,137 disabled Californians will be treated in community care settings by 2016.

Advocates of developmental centers argue the facilities maintain a vital role in caring for the hardest-to-treat cases. Miller said her adult son, Dan Smith, is not able to survive without the care he receives at the Eldridge facility. Smith has autism and bipolar disorder.

“He will probably be one the of the last residents to leave when they close (Sonoma) and force people into community placement,” Miller said.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said 19 percent of the residents at the Sonoma Developmental Center are so medically fragile that simply moving them to another location would be a challenge.

“The Legislative Analyst’s Office looked at the bottom line. Our top priority must be about the care of residents, many of whom have called SDC home for decades,” McGuire said.

The number of people who reside at developmental centers has been steadily declining in California since the 1960s, when attitudes shifted toward caring for the disabled in the least-restrictive settings possible. The state analyst’s office cited developmental centers that closed in the cities of San Jose and Pomona in the past decade as success stories to emulate. Of the nearly 800 clients who were living at the two facilities, only 20 failed to make the move and had to go back to a center, according to the report.

The report calculated the cost of caring for the disabled outside of the Pomona center to range between $75,000 and $300,000, substantially less than had they stayed at the facility.

But Gorin said the state analyst did not factor in all of the costs, financial and otherwise, of closing the state’s remaining developmental centers. The county supervisor is leading a coalition of local government agencies and community groups that are seeking to maintain some level of services for the disabled at the Eldridge facility.

“We collectively have a much broader responsibility in ensuring the safety and well-being of all the remaining residents in the developmental centers, as well as the staff members who have spent their lives there,” Gorin said.

Brown’s budget proposals generally reflect the recommendations of a state task force to close or dramatically downsize the state’s three remaining developmental centers in favor of smaller, crisis-intervention facilities, with longer-term care provided in partnership with regional centers and other community-based programs.

The task force, led by Diana Dooley, California’s health and human services secretary, has now turned its focus on the level of care in community settings and where gaps exist. A spokesman said Dooley was out of the office Thursday and unavailable for comment.

Santi Rogers, director of the state’s Department of Developmental Services, also was not available for comment Thursday, according to a spokeswoman.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.