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Through Stopgap, Group Care Homes Find Funding For January

Governor Bev Perdue announced Tuesday a temporary stopgap to keep about 1,400 North Carolinians from potentially becoming homeless next month. Perdue is moving money around to allow people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities to continue receiving care in group homes.

As is often the case with disability issues in North Carolina, this one evolved from a lawsuit.

Disability Rights North Carolina sued the state two summers ago. That was after the General Assembly gave people living at home and those living in group homes different standards to get Medicaid funding for help eating, bathing or receiving other personal care.

The nonprofit's executive director, Vicki Smith, said that was a violation of the Medicaid law, "which says if you're going to have a service definition, it needs to be comparable regardless of where the person lives."

"North Carolina in 2011, they were going to make it much harder to get the same service if you lived in your own home," Smith said.

But the lawsuit backfired. The General Assembly could've responded by putting everyone on the same lower standard to get service or the higher standard. The Republican-led legislature went with the higher standard. That made fewer people eligible, which saved the state money.

But Smith said legislators didn't think about how much group homes rely on funding for that specific type of service.

It accounts for about a third of their income, "so these group home operators and adult care home operators lost a third of their funding per resident, so the group home can no longer stay open," Smith said.

All that was set to happen in January. But Governor Perdue announced a temporary fix. She said the State Department of Health and Human Services found $1 million that would've gone unused but will now be spent to keep the group homes open for another month.

"It's a good solution, I think, to bridge a gap," Perdue said in a press conference. "It does what needs to be done until the legislature can come back and decide affirmatively or negatively what they intend to do with the group homes for special people."

When the legislature starts a new session in January, it could fix the problem by letting group homes tap into money already set aside to help cover funding losses.

Smith of Disability Rights North Carolina said that would work for a while. But she said the state would still need to decide on a long-term solution to maintain service for hundreds of people and keep the group homes open.