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New Federal Investigation Targets DHHR’s Treatment Of People With Disabilities

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The federal government has launched a civil rights investigation into the West Virginia Department of Human Resources’ treatment of persons with disabilities who are in the state agency’s care.

In a Nov. 14 letter, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources Office for Civil Rights said the investigation was based on a complaint filed by Disability Rights West Virginia (DRWV). Under federal law, the organization monitors the treatment of people with disabilities in the state’s facilities.

The investigation centers on DRWV’s complaint that DHHR allegedly unlawfully discriminated against people with intellectual and developmental disabilities by not providing appropriate services that could have prevented institutionalization.

“In the complaint, (DRWV) alleges that DHHR fails to administer services, programs and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to meet the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities,” the letter stated.

The Office for Civil Rights said patients are “now needlessly segregated in state- operated hospitals.”

Under state law, DHHR is responsible for persons with disabilities who are in state-run facilities.

DHHR Cabinet Secretary Bill Crouch said Monday during the governor’s virtual briefing that the agency is cooperating with the investigation. He said the state struggles to have “adequate placements” for people with disabilities in community settings.

“I’ve talked for several years now about trying to make sure we have adequate placements for individuals in our psychiatric hospitals,” Crouch said. “I’ve said numerous times on this call and before the legislature that no one should live in a psychiatric hospital that shouldn’t have to. We’re looking at making sure we can move folks to an appropriate level of care.”

In response to the federal probe, DHHR spokeswoman Allison Adler said in an email, “The DHHR does not tolerate discrimination of any kind, and works diligently to prevent discrimination from occurring in any service, program or activity which is administered by the agency.”

West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported last month that Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, had asked Gov. Jim Justice to launch an independent investigation into DHHR’s treatment of people with disabilities.

Blair’s letter cited multiple examples of what he called abuse under DHHR’s watch, including people with disabilities being strangled, being forced to use the bathroom outside and dying from inappropriate nutrition. Blair included concerns about DHHR’s transparency about its oversight of persons with disabilities, as well.

Blair’s letter also cited concerns about DHHR’s oversight of Sharpe Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Weston, and DRWV is currently investigating DHHR’s oversight of Sharpe Hospital. After the WVPB story published, Crouch defended his agency, saying, “We don’t have any tolerance with regard to patient abuse.”

Crouch told lawmakers in November that the investigation and emails by DRWV attorney Mike Folio, a former DHHR attorney, into DHHR’s practices was “bordering on harassment.”

DHHR, which operates with a $7.5 billion budget, is currently undergoing an internal restructuring in an effort to improve its communication and overall outcomes. The agency also instituted a hiring freeze.

The changes follow a $1 million outside review of the agency, which said it needed to improve its communication as the state is performing poorly in many health outcomes. Lawmakers criticized the review, performed by the McChrystal Group, for its lack of substance.