New budget calls for closing Sonoma Developmental Center by 2018

The future of the Eldridge center was cast in greater doubt Thursday as Gov. Brown unveiled a plan to close the facility by 2018.|

The future of the Sonoma Developmental Center and more than 400 people who reside there was cast into greater doubt Thursday as Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled a plan to close the facility by 2018 and spend nearly $50 million to transition residents into community-based homes and programs.

The proposal generated further dismay among advocates pressing against increasing odds to maintain the Sonoma Valley facility, which serves patients with severe physical and mental disabilities

“Our hearts are broken and we’re very sad at the news,” said Kathleen Miller, president of the center’s Parent Hospital Association.

Brown’s proposal, outlined in his updated budget for the fiscal year, which was made public Thursday, places him at odds with fellow Democrats who comprise the North Coast’s legislative delegation. The group has stated its opposition to making decisions about closing the Eldridge facility based upon anything other than what is best for the residents, many of whom have called the center home for decades.

“We’re talking about the lives of the most medically fragile residents in the entire state health services system,” state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said. “The discussion should be less about timelines and more about the health and well-being of the residents.”

But McGuire, who reported having a 45-minute conversation Thursday with state officials who oversee developmental centers, said federal mandates requiring changes in how health care is delivered make it challenging for lawmakers to push back on the governor’s plan. Still, he raised doubts the Sonoma Developmental Center can be shut down within three years as envisioned in that plan.

He noted it took Agnews Developmental Center in San Jose almost five years to close after being placed on a three-year shutdown plan.

Under the governor’s proposal, the state Department of Developmental Services will submit a closure plan for the Sonoma Developmental Center to the Legislature on Oct. 1, with the goal of shutting the facility by the end of 2018.

Santi Rogers, the department’s director, said Thursday he believes that timeline to be “very accurate, understanding always during the time period sometimes issues come up.”

Rogers did not provide specifics for how the closure would unfold, including a timetable for when residents will be moved out or whether the state will seek to declare the center’s buildings and property as surplus and sell them off in part or whole.

“It is premature to be too specific,” Rogers said.

Addressing concerns raised by patient advocates that the center’s closure could put the lives of current residents in jeopardy, Rogers said, “My hope is that as we work together, many of those concerns will be resolved. But that will take walking step-by-step.”

The center is home to more than 400 developmentally disabled residents and employs about 1,300, making it Sonoma Valley’s largest employer.

In his proposal, which is subject to legislative approval, the governor referenced the work of a blue-ribbon 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.

About 1,100 people reside in the state’s three remaining developmental centers, representing 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.

By contrast, an estimated 288,137 disabled Californians will be treated in community care settings by 2016, according to a nonpartisan Legislative Analyst Office report.

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

A Sonoma County coalition led by Supervisor Susan Gorin has launched an intensive review of potential uses for nearly 1,000 acres of prime real estate and the 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.

Gorin could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Brown, in his budget proposal, noted the Sonoma Developmental Center’s ongoing problems with licensing. 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.

Brown is seeking $49.3 million to “support the transition” of Sonoma residents into homes and to provide additional training for care providers. The money also would be used for supported living and crisis services, as well as for transportation.

The governor also is proposing to close the Fairview Developmental Center in Southern California and the nonsecure treatment portion of the Porterville Developmental Center, with the last closure completed in 2021.

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

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