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updated: 8/30/2011 6:32 PM

"Historic" settlement for nursing home patients

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Medicaid-eligible people with disabilities who have been forced by the state to live in Cook County nursing homes will now have the option of living at home and receiving support services there.

The change comes as the result of a class-action discrimination lawsuit filed against the state of Illinois by Chicago-based Access Living, on behalf of about 20,000 people with physical disabilities or mental illness who now live in Cook County nursing homes.

A settlement of the case was announced Tuesday. U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow is expected to approve the settlement Dec. 20.

Other counties statewide are expected to follow suit, attorneys said.

"This is a historic day for people with disabilities, not just for Illinois, but around the country," said Marca Bristo, president and CEO of Access Living. "To our community, it's the Brown v. Board of Education or the Roe v. Wade."

In a statement, Gov. Pat Quinn called it an "excellent settlement" that will save the state money and adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"(It) also responds to the aspirations of those who want to live more independent, productive and fulfilling lives in community and home-based settings," Quinn said in a statement. "For many people with disabilities, institutionalization is unnecessary and unwanted, and these settlements will help us continue to move in the right direction on community and home-based care."

This case was one of a trio of class-action lawsuits filed against the state by Access Living, the ACLU of Illinois and Equip for Equality, citing discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The lawsuit said thousands of people were forced to reluctantly be "warehoused" in state-run institutions because they could not afford to live in their communities or get the support services they need.

"Right now, the choice is mandated by the system. We needed to change the system," said Ben Wolf, associate legal director of the ACLU of Illinois.

This lawsuit centered on Lenil Colbert, a Chicago man who was partially paralyzed after suffering a stroke at age 32. Even though he doesn't require around-the-clock care, the state told him he had to move into a Chicago nursing home, where he was forced to have a roommate, wake up and eat on a schedule, and have visitation privileges he likened to jail visits.

"I felt like my life was over," said Colbert.

Last year, he finally received a hard-to-get state housing choice voucher so he could afford an apartment closer to his brother in Oak Lawn and has a caregiver come over to help him for a few hours each day.

Under the terms of the agreement, people will have a choice of where they want to live. If they do not choose to live in a state-run nursing home, the state will provide $10 million for housing and related assistance, including personal assistants, to at least 1,100 Cook County nursing home residents with disabilities during the first 2 years. After that, the state will provide $4,000 each in housing and related assistance to help them move into the community.

That cost is less than -- or will not exceed -- the amount the state spends now for their nursing home costs, said Steve Libowsky, one of the attorneys from SNR Denton who worked on the case for Access Living pro bono.

The policy change will benefit people like Ebony Payne, a 28-year-old quadriplegic who has been forced to live in a nursing home since a car accident and shooting in 2003. After being moved around to several state-run nursing homes, she's now living in a Niles facility -- a 2-hour round trip drive for her family on Chicago's south side.

"It's not easy ... and it doesn't make sense. If I'm not deathly ill, or need constant care, it doesn't make sense for me to be put up in a nursing facility. It's a waste of money," she said. "I've been wanting to go back to school for the longest time, but being here, that's not possible. My mom works from home, so I can stay with her. But I haven't been able to get a housing (choice) voucher."