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State relaxes restrictions on some programs for disabled residents

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration has eased restrictions on New Mexico’s programs for individuals with developmental disabilities, roughly four months after locking down group homes and freezing some services.

Under Department of Health changes that took effect Saturday, family members or guardians can now do outdoor visits with group home residents, provided they comply with certain COVID-19 guidelines, and therapists can resume face-to-face sessions with clients.

Pamela Stafford, the public policy director of The Arc of New Mexico, a group that provides services for those with developmental disabilities, described the changes as a positive step.

“We think this goes a long way,” she said in an interview Monday.

She said the lockdown had led to a surge in anxiety, depression and suicide attempts among those who live in group homes, along with at least three instances of bed bug infestations.

Roughly 200 family members signed on to a recently sent letter to the governor requesting the restrictions be relaxed, saying individuals, many with past trauma, were being “isolated from the people who care about them the most.”

During a news conference last week, Lujan Grisham described group-living homes as high-risk settings for coronavirus outbreaks given the proximity of residents.

But she said the state was working to address families’ concerns, while referring to her sister Kimberly, who was disabled and died at age 21.

“We also believe that the emotional and physical health consequences of not being able to provide some relief to both leaving your residence and having visitors has to be addressed,” the governor said in response to a Journal question.

However, the top medical official in her administration, Human Services Secretary David Scrase, called it a difficult decision to relax restrictions, noting the state’s seven-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases reached a record high last week.

“We understand the perception is we’re exercising too much caution,” Scrase said.

New Mexico’s state-run developmental disabilities programs – there are two programs that are both largely funded by federal Medicaid dollars – currently provide services to about 4,800 individuals and their families, though thousands more are on a waiting list to join the program.

Those enrolled in the programs qualify for a range of services – from physical and speech therapy to respite care for parents and guardians.

The developmental disability services are known as a “waiver” program. That’s because the federal government, for states including New Mexico, has waived the requirement that help be provided in a nursing home or other type of institutional setting.

That allows families and guardians of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to decide whether they should live at home, semi-independently or in group homes.

As of last week, a total of 551 individuals enrolled in New Mexico’s developmental disabilities programs had been tested for the coronavirus, according to a memo sent by an acting DOH deputy secretary.

Of that amount, 25 had tested positive and seven have died.

Stafford acknowledged Monday the lockdown on group homes and limited services had proven successful in preventing virus outbreaks, like those seen in some nursing home settings, despite its unintended consequences.

As a result, she said that families will be advised to be cautious and abide by state guidelines – including wearing face masks and social distancing – when visiting family members.

“We all have to be so careful, because the threats are real,” she said.

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