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It has been nearly a year since Virginia’s governor announced plans to close four of the state’s five training centers by 2020, but some state legislators believe the process needs to be slowed down.

The training centers, which at one point housed more than 6,000 people, provide services for people with disabilities in an institutional setting. There are now fewer than 1,000 residents across the five centers, according to a state census.

In preliminary plans announced last January, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell slated the Northern Virginia Training Center in Fairfax as the second to close, completing a transition to community-based services by June 2015. Under a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice, the state is required to present a more detailed plan by August 2013.

The settlement agreement does not mandate that the centers be closed, but does require that the state do more to provide adequate funding and services to support individuals with disabilities in community-based settings. State officials are proposing to close the centers in part as a cost-saving measure and in part to comply with federal requirements to provide the least restrictive care option for people with intellectual disabilities..

Sen. Barbara Favola (D-Dist. 31), who represents the Great Falls and McLean area, is working on legislation aimed at getting the General Assembly more involved in the planning process with the goal of ensuring that current training center residents don’t fall through the cracks.

“There has to be community-based placement already up and running in order to close the centers,” she said. “As philosophically ideal as this might be, we have to be very careful in the implementation.”

Local communities do not yet have the capacity to absorb dozens of training center residents into the community, she said, and in many cases communities also need money to help prepare.

“We’ve done ourselves a disservice if we simply close the training centers and the services and the supports aren’t there,” said Fairfax Del. David Bulova (D-Dist. 37), who plans to provide support for Favola’s legislation on the House of Delegates side.

Funding the transition will likely be a major discussion point in the General Assembly as well. The Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board would likely need to absorb more than 100 new clients who are now living at training centers, including 88 at the Northern Virginia Training Center, according to CSB Executive Director George Braunstein.

That means about $2 million more a year to support services and about a $10 million investment to get sufficient housing in place, Braunstein said.

“If the [state] money isn’t there, it’s going to put a lot of pressure on Fairfax County and other local governments,” he said.

CSB staff are already planning for the transition, Braunstein said, but the governor’s proposed timeline feels a bit unrealistic.

“There may need to be a little more time in order for this to work right,” he said. “We don’t want to be pushing people out the door until they find the right placement that meets their needs.”

Favola also believes it is very important for state officials to work with the parents and legal guardians of training center residents, as some do still want their loved one to reside at the training center.

Peter Kinsler, of Mount Vernon, is one of those parents. His 37-year-old son resides at the Northern Virginia Training Center because he needs around-the-clock care, Kinsler said. His son functions between the level of a 6-month-old and a 1-year-old, he said, and has behaviors that warrant constant supervision.

While he believes that families who want community placement should be able to get that support from the state, he doesn’t think it’s fair to make it an either/or proposition.

“I don’t see what the benefits [of community placement] are for somebody functioning at this level,” he said. “He flourishes where he is.”

Kinsler hopes state officials will take a step back and consider options that preserve the training centers for those who prefer that option.

Bringing pressure for more community-based supports is The Arc of Virginia and its local chapters throughout the state. Earlier this month, The Arc released a report called “The New Virginia Way” that strongly supports the move to integrated, community-based services and calls for adequate state funding for those services.

There is already a lengthy waiting list to receive Medicaid funding for services. Locally, there are more than 800 people waiting for funding for community services, and more than 6,200 statewide.

The settlement agreement that is prompting the closing of the training centers also requires that the state provide support to thousands more people over the next decade, but The Arc is urging legislators to do more.

The Arc views the settlement agreement as an opportunity to make more progress in the areas it has been fighting for years.

“For decades, Virginians with ID/DD and their families have been fighting for access to community-based services that are so desperately needed,” Howard Cullum, president of The Arc of Virginia, said in a released statement. “Many have been institutionalized as a result of inaction. Now is the time to make things right.”

The report also advocates for a greater Medicaid reimbursement level for service providers and a re-evaluation of the system to ensure it is as effective as possible.

While he doesn’t agree with The Arc advocates on many things, training center supporter Kinsler said that additional money would go a long way in quieting the philosophical debates that are pitting parents against one another.

Virginia ranks very near the bottom of U.S. states in its funding of services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“The system needs more money. It’s not more complicated than that,” Kinsler said.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com