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Originally published Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 4:07 PM

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Editorial: Reset inequity for state’s most vulnerable

Washington’s developmental-disabilities system is one of haves and have-nots. To reset this inequity, the Legislature and Gov. Inslee should heed a recent audit and work to close expensive state institutions.

Seattle Times Editorial

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FOR people with developmental disabilities, Washington is a system of haves and have-nots. That is unfair to both and unbecoming for a state with the resources and culture of compassion to do better. Recent audits exposing this fact demand attention from the state Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee.

The have-nots are the 15,100 people eligible for state aid — such as in-home personal care, job training and housing — but linger on a waiting list because of inadequate funding. This waiting list, which can stretch for years, disrupts the lives of families caring for kin with developmental disabilities and delays the full potential for the unserved person.

This broken system serves fewer eligible people on a per capita basis than any Northwest state, including Idaho. We trail similar-sized but more conservative states such as Arizona and Indiana.

A recent performance audit by state Auditor Troy Kelley’s office suggests fixing this inequity by reducing Washington’s over-dependence on four expensive state institutions, known as residential habilitation centers (RHCs). Only 14 other states are more dependent on these institutions, according to the State of the States, a Colorado-based project which tracks disability funding.

Washington RHCs care for 876 people, at a per-person cost of $194,000 each, a rate five times more expensive than in-home care. RHCs consume more than 17 percent of the state’s developmental-disabilities spending while serving 4 percent of the state’s client caseload.

Closing RHCs is not a new suggestion. It has come up since the 1980s. Union politics — RHCs are a power base for the public-employees union — flare up, the parents of residents and local communities dependent on those 2,100-plus jobs protest and lawmakers usually back away.

In 2011 the Frances Haddon Morgan Center in Bremerton closed as a RHC, but the four remaining are four more than 12 states have, including Oregon. With no expensive institutions to maintain, Oregon serves nearly twice as many people, per capita, as Washington.

The auditor’s report debunks the strongest argument for keeping RHCs — that the people there are so disabled they cannot be adequately served outside an institution. Auditors found that, for every person in an RHC with a severe medical disability, 17 others live outside institutions.

If RHCs are to close, it would be grossly unfair — even immoral — not to funnel savings toward the 15,100 people on the waitlist. Closing RHCs could be an exercise in government efficiency, not cost-cutting.

The haves and the have-nots: The governor and Legislature must find the political will to reset this inequity.

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