Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
The Oklahoma Commission for Human Services will consider a proposal Thursday to close the Northern Oklahoma Resource Center in Enid and its sister facility, the Southern Oklahoma Resource Center at Pauls Valley.
The proposal, which would transition all residents at the two facilities into private-care homes, comes after months of delays in determining the fate of NORCE and SORC, and a plan that would have consolidated the most severely disabled residents into the Enid facility.
Oklahoma DHS was required — under terms of legislation passed by the Legislature in 2011 — to come up with a plan for the future of NORCE and SORC. Both facilities care for residents with severe developmental disabilities.
DHS submitted a plan in January calling for SORC to be scaled back to a 15-bed hospital and keeping NORCE in operation. That plan was rejected by the Legislature in February.
In June, Michael Peck, an Enid optometrist and chairman of the OCHS property committee, proposed closing SORC and transferring many of the residents there to NORCE. Under Peck’s proposal, other SORC clients would have been placed in community-based group homes.
When that proposal came up for a vote in July, Gov. Mary Fallin requested the vote be delayed. After two more months without a decision, Fallin toured both NORCE and SORC in late September and met with legislators from Enid and Pauls Valley.
At that time State Sen. Patrick Anderson, R-Enid, said the September meeting was “very positive” and the governor was “very supportive of the future of the NORCE facility.”
Anderson’s response was different Wednesday when he received his copy of the OCHS agenda.
He was shocked by the proposal to close both facilities.
“I’m very concerned that that’s the proposal they are going to vote on.”
He said he had thought the so-called Peck plan — keeping NORCE open and closing SORC — was what was going to be considered.
“Closing down NORCE doesn’t make any sense,” Anderson said.
He also is concerned about what would happen to clients at both facilities.
“I know there aren’t available group homes to place these people in, so that’s not an option,” Anderson said.
His fear is that action to close both facilities would result in lawsuits from families of clients who are worried about their loved ones’ future care.
In a strongly worded news release sent out Wednesday afternoon, Anderson said the result of the OCHS vote would be to force the state’s most vulnerable and severely disabled citizens out on the streets.
“For months now, the governor has intervened and directed that the commission not vote on a previously presented plan to consolidate the facilities into one,” Anderson said. “Now, with no warning, the governor has clearly given the direction that a vote take place on a new plan that would close both facilities.”
Anderson said the fact OCHS could be dissolved after Tuesday’s election should not be overlooked. Voters will consider State Question 765 to dissolve OCHS and Department of Human Services, and give the governor the power to appoint the DHS director and members of four advisory committees. DHS functions would continue under the new management structure.
“Clearly, the governor wants the commission to take the blame for the vote, so she can avoid taking responsibility for this decision,” Anderson said.
An angry State Rep. Mike Jackson, R-Enid, accused Fallin of dealing unfairly with residents and families at NORCE and SORC.
“Moving forward in the way the governor’s office and the Human Services Commission has done brings into question the fairness of any plan they would bring forward,” Jackson said.
Jackson said he called the governor’s office Wednesday after receiving the OCHS agenda. He said he had heard nothing about the closing and was angered about the way it is being handled.
Jackson said Fallin’s staff told him the governor is in favor of the closing and placing the residents into community treatment facilities. Jackson estimated there are about 300 jobs between the two facilities.
Jackson said he was told the governor’s staff had done research and looked at other states and decided what was best for the people in the two institutions is to move out into community care.
“But they’ve not shown any indication of the terms to move forward, in terms of a plan, or how much space is available in the community to move them into,” Jackson said.
He asked if the ultimate goal is quality of care or if other necessities are causing the move.
“Those discussions have not taken place anywhere except in the governor’s office alone,” Jackson said. “At this point I’ve not seen a plan. All I know is from conversation with the governor’s office.”
Jackson said there has been no discussion with legislators at all.
Richard Devaughn, a retired Enid dentist and former OCHS member, was not surprised by the agenda item calling for the closure of both SORC and NORCE.
Devaughn’s term on the OCHS board expired in August.
As early as May, Devaughn classified delays in a vote on the future of NORCE and SORC a “political game” in which Fallin was “kicking the can down the road” until she had the votes on the commission to close the centers.
Devaughn said the governor got that majority with three recent appointments to the commission.
“Once she had control of the commission, she was going to do what she intended to do last year, which is close both of them and place the people in a private setting,” Devaughn said. “Once the governor gained control of the commission, it was no longer the commission doing what’s right, it was the governor doing what the governor wants done.”
Devaughn said the transition to private care could leave some of the centers’ most vulnerable residents without the care they need, and leave their families without the option of a state resource center.
“Now, if you have a loved one who needs that care, you don’t have any options,” Devaughn said. “You’re going to have to go with a private vendor, if you’re lucky.
“They’ll cherry pick the clients they can make money off of, and they tend to make a ton of money off the deal. And the ones who are too expensive to take care of, well, good luck.”
Peck, whose plan to close SORC and move some of its residents to NORCE was sidestepped in today’s agenda, also raised concerns about caring for the most severely disabled in community-care facilities.
Peck said the majority of residents at the two facilities may integrate well into community-based care, but there are a “small number of people who won’t have their least-restricted lifestyle living out in the community.”
“I don’t think just having community-based care is the best way,” Peck said. “I think we definitely should have a safety net for the people who are not able to transition into the community, and to say those people just aren’t out there is false.”
Peck said he didn’t find out about the proposal to close both state facilities until Monday. He then took his concerns to the head of the DHS Developmental Disability Services Division.
“All I heard from the director of DDSD is, he adamantly told me ‘Yes, 100 percent of these people can be transitioned into the community,’” Peck said. “They’re just saying, with teamwork, if everyone works together, all these folks can transition into the community, and I just don’t think that matches with reality.”
Peck said all the commissioners have studied the issue extensively, “and there aren’t good people and bad people on this, just different philosophies.”
Peck said today’s resolution was drafted by DHS and the governor’s office, and it only offers two options: close both facilities or leave both open. He said it’s likely both will close.
If both centers do close, Peck said it will be due largely to the influence of the governor.
“The governor’s office got involved in this, and has influenced the new commissioners quite a bit,” he said.
Alex Weintz, communications director for Gov. Fallin, said the governor “has taken a close interest” in the issue, but today’s agenda item was not politically motivated.
Weintz said the governor has examined the availability of community-based care for the residents currently being cared for at NORCE and SORC.
He said private home care “is something our office has viewed as a viable alternative for quite some time.”
“It’s something the governor has always thought should be considered,” Weintz said.
He said the timing of today’s vote is not the result of deliberate delays and political strategy, and is “not a pre-ordained conclusion, or anything like that.”
Weintz said the timing is not related to next week’s vote on State Question 765, and the possible dissolution of the OCHS board.
“The governor is not focused on taking blame or taking credit,” Weintz said. “The governor is focused on what’s best for Oklahomans with developmental disabilities and their families, not politics.”
He said recent delays in a vote on NORCE and SORC were meant to give the governor and new OCHS board members time to gather information needed to make an informed decision.
“The plan all along has been to make sure the commission and the governor were able to gather as much information as possible, to hear all sides of the issue, to visit the facilities, and to make an informed decision about those facilities, and where Oklahomans at those facilities can get the best services and the best care, and ultimately that has to be at the forefront of everybody’s mind.”
The Oklahoma Commission for Human Services will meet today at 1:30 p.m. in Oklahoma City. Check the Enid News & Eagle online and in print for updates on this story.
News & Eagle staff writers James Neal and Robert Barron, and Associate Editor Kevin Hassler contributed to this story.