Friday, May 21, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Closing Alexander

Mike Beebe is an uncommonly popular governor after one term during which the state has endured unusual economic hardship, which ordinarily drives down a chief executive’s approval ratings. The reason is simple. He tends to act decisively rather than waffling through crises.

Rather abruptly on Wednesday, Beebe ordered the closing of the state Human Development Center at Alexander, one of four state institutions that care for the physically and mentally disabled. The state and the relatives of the more than 100 residents, mostly profoundly disabled men, now must find a new home for them, either at one of the other state centers at Conway,
Jonesboro and Warren or in some community setting. That is a wrenching ordeal for the families and the residents but it is clearly the best of bad alternatives.

The Alexander facility has been beset with troubles for years: neglect, abuse, unprofessional care, degraded facilities. You name the problem, Alexander has experienced it. Beebe has deplored the conditions there and speculated that it might need to be closed. He probably should have acted even earlier. Whether it is the location, the old facilities, its peculiar mission or something else, Alexander seemed impervious to reform no matter who ran it. It opened more than 40 years ago in facilities that had been a tuberculosis sanatorium for African-Americans. It was a relic of the long Jim Crow era, when the state provided distinctly substandard facilities for blacks. That was not a halcyon atmosphere. Alexander became the place for people with profound and multiple disabilities — physical and developmental — and frequently with severe mental illness.

The Justice Department last month sued the state to bring about dramatic change, and perhaps closure, at all four institutions. It said the institutions were providing substandard care and were violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by not putting residents into the least restrictive settings, such as in community homes. Beebe hired private consultants to investigate conditions at Alexander and they told him it was grossly understaffed and technically unequipped to protect and provide therapy for the residents.

Then the center was notified early in the week that it would lose its eligibility for Medicaid because it had continually failed to meet federal standards for protecting the disabled men. That means the loss soon of 70 percent of its funding. The state could fight that action or operate the facility with state funds alone, which would mean further degraded care.

You have to believe that for the residents closing is a merciful act.