Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration has launched an “enhanced care” program in response to scathing criticism about the treatment of hundreds of disabled children who are kept in nursing homes.
The “Enhanced Care Coordination” program will enlist at least 28 nurse care coordinators throughout the state to work with families of disabled children and the nursing homes where they are being treated.
“The program is designed to help empower parents, to help them and to educate them and to help them personalize the experience that they have,” said AHCA director Liz Dudek on Thursday, adding that the nurse care coordinators will be able to help some families bring disabled children home from nursing homes.
But even with the new measures, the agency and the state of Florida continue to be locked in a heated battle with the federal government, which released a damning report last year accusing the state of warehousing disabled children in nursing homes with isolated and unhealthy conditions.
Dudek said she visited the six facilities where children are being treated this week and found a very different scene than the one painted in the grim federal report, which documented isolated children spending years in nursing homes with very little education or social stimulation.
According to the federal report and records obtained by the Miami Herald, children in nursing facilities can suffer grievous neglect and isolated conditions even as parents object to removing the children from their family homes.
“I can tell you that what I found was way better than I even thought I would find,” said Dudek, “Children had multidisciplinary programs ongoing, the school was very involved it was clear the [Children’s Multidisciplinary Assessment Team] process was working, and there were parents involved and the Department of Children and Families involved.”
Dudek, who toured a South Florida nursing facility this week, later added: “I have to wonder what the DOJ was looking at when they went through there and I would invite any of you to go to any of those facilities because I certainly did not see what they were seeing.”
Dudek said there were two or three children in each of the six facilities that state officials grew attached to and "wanted to take home," a statement that AHCA spokesperson clarified was a personal aside and not a medical determination. There are at least 221 disabled children across the state being treated in nursing facilities.
Dudek said children are already coming out of the nursing homes, but the addition of enhanced nurse care coordinators will help further that process.
Kathy McCallister, Chair of the Florida Development Disabilities Council, said the new program was an encouraging sign that more children will be transitioning from nursing home care into household care.
“The Florida Development Disabilities Council believes that children, even those with medically complex conditions, should be living with their families or in a home-like environment,” she said.
The U.S. Department of Justice, which threatened a lawsuit over Florida’s care practices, continues to be at odds with the state over the care program.
Dudek said agency officials speak with officials at the federal government about once a month, but the relationship has been a difficult one.
“Our intent is to work with the federal government, and, at this point, to convince them – maybe we need to go back into the facilities with them and see if they still have the concerns that they allege,” she said, reiterating the agency’s long-held position that it is not breaking any laws. “It’s been very very difficult, because they’ve given us no specifics.”