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Colorado Called Out for ADA Noncompliance​

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

The federal government of the United States is suing the state government of Colorado under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The lawsuit seeks changes in policies to enable people with physical disabilities to live at home, participate in their communities, and maintain connections with loved ones. The law says that states should pay for support services so that people with disabilities can live in the least restrictive setting that meets their needs. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ), Colorado has too few service providers, especially those helping people find housing that meets their needs. The DOJ is now asking a judge to make the state take steps to correct this. Let's break down the law and explore the government's arguments.

DOJ's Allegations Against Colorado Under ADA

To get down to the legal brass tacks (brass scales?), the DOJ is specifically alleging that the state's failure to offer essential services at home violates the ADA. The ADA, enacted by Congress in 1990, was designed as a comprehensive mandate to eliminate discrimination against individuals with disabilities, acknowledging that such discrimination remains a pervasive societal issue. Title II of the ADA prohibits discrimination by public entities (here, the state of Colorado) against qualified individuals with disabilities. It mandates the inclusion of these individuals in all services, programs, and activities. The U.S. Supreme Court clarified the application of the ADA with its 1999 landmark case, Olmstead v. L.CIt held that discrimination under the ADA includes unjustified segregation of people with disabilities in institutional settings and that states must provide community-based services when appropriate, reasonable, and not opposed by the individual.

The DOJ alleged in its complaint that due to the state's failure to provide community services, thousands of Coloradans with physical disabilities (including but not limited to older adults) face unnecessary segregation by being forced into nursing facilities. These individuals require assistance with daily activities and healthcare, but Colorado only offers these services in nursing facilities. This forces people to give up their homes, as they end up in nursing homes after injuries or when caregivers can't provide care anymore. But most of the people with physical disabilities who have had to move to nursing facilities could live at home, alone or with family or friends if they could access the services they need there. The state's policies lead to bad health outcomes, deprive individuals of basic choices, and make them vulnerable to infections. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these issues, making residents even more vulnerable.

Current Community-Based Care in Colorado

Colorado has gotten several funding injections to address these issues. Earlier this year, the state's legislature passed a bill to provide $100 million for its "Community First Choice Medicaid Benefit" program aimed at funding home and community-based attendant services and support to Medicaid recipients with disabilities. This means that people with disabilities can receive the care they need in their own homes and communities, rather than having to live in institutions. The program would provide services such as personal care services, homemaker services, health maintenance activities, personal emergency response systems, and other emergency backup services, as well as training on how to select, manage, and dismiss an attendant.

For individuals who need particular housing to meet their unique physical needs, a critical service is housing navigation. Last week, Colorado received an additional $43 million grant to support older adults and people with disabilities transition from institutional living settings into their communities as a part of the state effort to ensure individuals with disabilities receive assistance in finding and securing accessible housing. The initiative allows the state agencies to expand housing navigation services to include support for members at risk of institutionalization. It also provides 400 new housing vouchers for those transitioning out of an institutional setting or those at risk of institutionalization. Short-term rental assistance is another important service that this grant provides to transitional individuals and includes funds for security deposits, rental arrears, utility start-up costs and pre-tenancy to support individuals in learning about maintaining community housing.

One major problem with the existing system in Colorado is that the way the state provides money for nursing homes encourages those homes to keep getting more money every year. On the other hand, services that help people stay in their own homes (like home care services) don't get these automatic increases in funding. The DOJ points out it's significantly less expensive to help people stay at home: it costs about $30,401 per year on average to provide home care, which is almost three times cheaper than housing the same individual in a nursing facility.

Federal Government Suit Underway

The federal government has now turned to the courts to say that Colorado has violated the ADA. If successful, the lawsuit will force the state to take new actions to stop discriminating against people with disabilities in the future.

The Colorado Attorney General's Office declined to comment about the lawsuit. A spokesperson from the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing said that Colorado has been making progress in helping people with disabilities and has been working for a long time to make sure people with disabilities can choose to live and get their care in their communities.

The suit was filed last Friday by an attorney in the Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ, in the federal court for the District of Colorado. The case will be handled by U.S. Magistrate Judge Scott Varholak. As the case is still in very early stages, we will have to wait and see how it plays out, but it brings a sliver of hope to Coloradans with certain disabilities.

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