By Ernie Over, managing editor, county10.com
(Cheyenne, Wyo.) – An awkward call-in telephone conference Wednesday night on House Bill 68 to study options for the Wyoming Life Resource Center (WLRC) in Lander attracted at least 70 callers and lasted just over two hours. Hosted by Wyoming Governor Matt Mead’s office, the call was initiated to allow families and guardians of residents of the WLRC to ask questions of the bill sponsors and Wyoming Department of Health (WDH) officials about the legislation.
At times, conversations on the call were interrupted by noises, two people trying to talk at the same time, side conversations and continued beeps as people entered and exited the call. To accommodate all who wished to comment, people were allowed to speak in alphabetical order, starting with last names from A to Z with one question allowed per person.
WDH Director Tom Forslund explained the background which lead to the legislation, which was developed by the Legislature’s Joint Labor, Health and Social Services Committee. Forsland was joined by two of the department’s Behavioral Health administrators. The Co-chairmen of the committee, Sen. Charles Scott of Casper and Rep. Elaine Harvey of Lovell were also present to answer questions, along with Lander lawmakers Sen. Cale Case and Rep. Lloyd Larsen plus Sen. Eli Bebout of Riverton. Gov. Mead’s Health Care Policy Advisor Elizabeth Hoy was on hand and the Governor’s Chief of Staff Kari Jo Gray facilitated the call.
As explained to the families and guardians who called in, Forslund said a planned study of the WLRC was driven by the legislature’s request to identify the cost drivers of the Medicaid program and the cost of operations associated with the WLRC. The study calls on the WDH to conduct a study to transition some or all of the residents to community-based services. Forslund said with declining state revenues the legislature is looking for cost savings across State Government. He noted that his department had to trim $19 million, or four percent of his budget, for the 2013-14 biennium and plan for a reduction of $75 million for the 2015-16 biennium.
Harvey noted that the average cost for a resident of the WLRC is $350,000 annually while the average cost for adults in community settings is $65,000. “I would have to say that it is really difficult for me to watch all the people on the waiting list,” she said in opening remarks. Harvey said there are 214 adults, 220 children and 64 people with acquired brain injuries on waiting lists for home and community services statewide. The WLRC has a current population of 90 residents with a cap of some 140 residents. She said the average waiting time is 31 months. “That’s almost three years (for families) who have applied for services and not received anything, and some families have waited more than five years. For me to look at the waiting list and look at the per person cost of the Life Resource Center, it seems like an unfair allocation of the money.”
Scott said the legislature was asked to allow for an increase of the population at the WLRC but he said an effort to allocate more funds to accommodate that in the last session failed, which lead to the development of HB0068.
Harvey also disclosed that her sponsorship of the bill is personal. In an emotional final statement before the call ended, she noted that is not the first study that she’d been involved in. “It’s been ongoing for many years. My intention is not to put people on the street, but to help people who are on the street and manage the money so everyone’s needs can be met,” she said in a quavering voice. “It’s personal to me with my grandson. Yes, we need a safety net, but we need to find a way to help people who have nothing.”
Throughout the two-hour long call, family members and guardians of residents there expressed their fears that the study would result in the closure of the Lander facility and that the result of the study has been pre-determined.
Forslund denied that. “This is a study to look at options and not how to figure out how to close the WLRC,” he said. “We don’t know what will come out (of the study) and what options will be presented to the legislature. It’s premature to make assumptions that the WLRC will be closed.”
Case noted that the bill is halfway through the legislature, having been amended and passed in the house. Case said he would work on the bill in the Senate to make the study more broadly based than just transitioning residents out of the facility, including other options for usage of the Lander campus. “I do not support the bill, but will work hard to make it better. It’s a long process,” he said, encouraging families and guardians to contact legislators with their comments and concerns.
Larsen said he supports the bill. “We have a responsibility as legislators to manage public health care the most efficient way. I do support the study to take care of things in a better way and to prove that the WLRC is a necessary facility for the state,” he said. Larson also noted the state has a “real responsibility to protect the needs of the residents at the WLRC as well as those throughout the state.”
Bebout, the co-chair of the Joint Appropriations Committee, reminded the call participants that the state’s revenue situation “is real” and he said his committee would begin working on budget reductions beginning today (Thursday). “Everyone is concerned with the revenue situation that we have,” he said. “Rest assured that we’ll do all we can to stretch revenues, that’s what is driving this. This is not a study to close, but to look at benefits and what other opportunities there are and to do things better.”
Most of the comments from the callers concerned family members who reside at the center and how their quality of lives has been greatly improved since they arrived there. Callers also questioned the adequacy and availability of community-based programs, challenged the costs presented by the legislators, asked if other revenue sources could be found to supplement the WLRC budget, and expressed concerns about losing the right of choice to have their loved ones placed at a facility of the family’s choice.
The bill is expected to be discussed in the Senate in the first week of February, giving advocates of the WLRC more opportunities to testify on the bill.
Editor’s note. The original version of this story indicated the waiting list was for entry to the WLRC. The Governor’s office Thursday clarified that the waiting list was for home and community services statewide, and not specifically for the WLRC.