Lawmaker Accuses Oregon Health Authority Of Ignoring People With Disabilities

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An Oregon senator blasted the Oregon Health Authority on Wednesday for ignoring people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in proposed reforms of the behavioral health care system.

Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, said she is tired of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities being “invisible” in Oregon. Her statement followed a presentation by the health authority to a Senate committee about recommendations from the Governor’s Behavioral Health Advisory Council. The meeting of the Senate Interim Committee on Mental Health is part of Oregon Legislative Days, a weeklong series of lawmaker meetings to prepare for the 2021 session.

Gelser said she was disappointed that none of the recommendations addressed people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“At what point does this population matter, or has the health authority and the state of Oregon just decided this is a subgroup of our population that will never be seen in serious work?” Gelser said. 

Gov. Kate Brown appointed the council members in October. The 35-member group ended its work in September with recommendations that some members said fell far short in  addressing Oregon’s mental health crisis.

In the meeting, Gelser said a concern for people with disabilities should not be missing in behavior health care reforms and criticized the authority’s overall record, particularly during COVID-19, of failing to adequately serve this population. Shortcomings include a lack of access to testing for people with disabilities and poorly written crisis care guidelines, Gelser said. Those guidelines determine how hospitals pick who gets life-saving treatment, such as ventilators when it has too many patients for too few supplies. 

Following criticism from advocates, the health authority scrapped the guidelines and said it would come up with new ones because the existing set was discriminatory.

In response to Gelser’s criticism, Steve Allen, behavioral health director, said the authority has monitored the impact on different populations throughout the course of the pandemic and worked closely with disability rights advocates and the Oregon Department of Human Services on cases.

“It’s not enough,” he said. “You’re right.”

Allen stressed the authority strives to include people with disabilities in its planning, along with other groups such as communities of color. Gelser said the health authority needs to recognize that people with disabilities “exist in the state of Oregon because right now one every front, they are shut out.”

Gelser’s advocacy for disabled people runs deep. She served on the National Council on Disability after President Barack Obama appointed her in 2010. Before she was a legislator, Gelser was the children with disabilities and family support coordinator for the Oregon Department of Human Services.

Gelser added: “They shouldn’t always be invisible.”

Her criticism was countered by the committee chair, Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, who was on the council that wrote the recommendations. Though thanking Gelser for her “dogged determination,” Roblan said the group did discuss workforce training to help people with multiple needs, including intellectual and developmental disabilities. 

Earlier in the meeting, Roblan said the large group of 35 people on the council did well, considering the circumstances.

“I felt really good about what we got to and what we accomplished,” he said. “If we can get these things done, it will make a big difference.”

The council’s recommendations include support for an existing federal pilot program that provides community behavioral health clinics at nine locations; creating a state-funded pilot to provide culturally responsive programs for people of color; and adding a third year to a two-year program that provides services to young people ages 14 to 25 who are experiencing psychosis for the first time. 

Another recommendation calls for community services to help the “aid-and-assist” population and a 16-bed secure residential treatment facility. Aid-and-assist cases involve defendants in criminal cases who need mental health services before they can stand trial and aid in their defense.

Other recommendations include creating housing programs and stepping up efforts for incentives to attract people to the behavioral health care field, including people of color, tribal members  and people in rural areas. 

The recommendations now go to Brown’s Racial Justice Council’s two committees for health and housing. 

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected]rg or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.


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