By Michael L. Peck
Enid News & Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
A country can be defined by how it deals with its most vulnerable people.
We in Oklahoma usually are very concerned about our fellow citizens. However, some decisions have been made recently through a political process that sometimes occurs, and it has put a few of our most fragile and dependent folks at high risk for losing their quality of life and, in some instances, their life, literally.
I am speaking of the closure of both of our institutions that are responsible for caring for our most profoundly disabled citizens. This leaves them with no other alternative but to move into a community-based living arrangement in which most of them have already had failures.
Oklahoma is not the first state to do this. Eight others have preceded us, and in every instance, they have experienced serious situations because a few of the most extreme behavior and medically fragile clients could not transition into community group homes.
This national trend to close residential institutions that care for our intellectually disabled, mentally ill and developmentally disabled individuals comes from a school of thought that everyone should be living in a community environment where they can participate in civic activities and integrate into the mainstream socially, occupationally and recreationally.
The leaders who adhere to this philosophy believe institutional congregate care isolates the disabled citizens from a higher quality of life in the community and puts them in an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” situation. They look at it as segregation. In order to support their philosophy, they have to exaggerate the description of our current residential facilities by describing them as they were back in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
Fortunately, for our loved ones at our Resource Centers, this is simply not accurate. They are experiencing their highest quality of life in the last 40 years. They have direct access to medical, dental and therapy services by providers that specialize in their situations. Their medications are strictly monitored to avoid over-sedation and serious drug interactions.
It is untrue that these services are accessible in a community-based setting. They participate in a robust occupational program that places them out in the community daily. They make money and purchase personal items that they desire. Importantly, they have consistent and timely schedules because variations in daily activities are usually very stressful and upsetting to them.
Oklahoma’s resource centers in Enid and Pauls Valley have allowed 250 of our most fragile and vulnerable citizens live well beyond their life expectancy in a happy, safe and loving environment.
Community-based care for most of our developmentally disabled citizens is definitely the best way for them to have their highest quality of life. When the Hissom Memorial Center was court-ordered to close, all of their residents were transitioned into community-based settings.
However, their model of benefits and services was specifically designed for them and monitored by a federal judge. It was a model that could never be duplicated anywhere in the nation due to its high cost and unique individual benefits.
For example, they were given extra funds from the state of Oklahoma to pay the additional rent if they wanted to live in a home by themselves rather than sharing a residence with other roommates with similar disabilities.
Other states, such as Tennessee, that are trying to close their institutions, are encumbering unexpected and prohibitive expenses to satisfy the needs of some of their more profoundly disabled clients that are being forced into community-based care.
The politicians and administrators who are insisting on the community-based style of living as the only option for these folks must not be willing to look at the outcomes and unintended consequences of their philosophy.
The state of Oklahoma has some degree of responsibility for 11,000 developmentally disabled citizens. More than 5,000 are cared for by community-based providers that contract through the Oklahoma Department of Human Services and are providing excellent services to these individuals. There are only 250 or less of these folks that desperately need the safety-net option of a residential institutional setting.
A reasonable plan to consolidate our two institutions and create a true resource center that provides a safe and least restrictive environment to those who cannot transition into the community — and also offers services to those living in the community — has been proposed.
It would help solve a lot of the problems that our 11,000 most vulnerable citizens are experiencing, and in an affordable and predictable way.
Please join the parents and guardians of these people who cannot speak for themselves, and contact your state representatives, senators and, most importantly, our governor, and ask them to reconsider the closure of both of our resource centers.
Their phone numbers can be found at www.oklegisla ture.gov. Oklahoma should be a model state for the nation on the care of these precious people.
Peck, an Enid optometrist, served as chairman of the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services property committee.