Special Report: Waiving Your Right to Choose

Some local families say the state is discriminating against them because of where they chose to live.

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Roman Harshaw is 16, but he functions like a 5-year-old.

When his mom, Julie, heard about a planned community for the intellectually disabled called Vanguard Landing, it was an answer to her prayers.

“He’s got a great heart, got a great imagination. It’s just he has to be protected,” Julie said. “He’ll be able to live and work and play and have a job there, and he talks about that he wants to have a job.”

But under current rules, he could lose his Medicaid waiver if he moves into a community like that.

“Are you kidding me? That’s not the American way, that’s not the Virginian way, that’s ridiculous,” said State Sen. Bill DeSteph.

DeSteph is proposing a new law, that basically says a waiver can not be reduced or revoked based on where a person chooses to live. He tried it last year, and failed.

“Don’t you guys understand the Constitution? It’s like going into a retirement home and saying ‘hey, you know too many old people live in a retirement home so guess what? 95 percent of you have to move somewhere else,’ ” DeSteph said.

But it’s not quite the same — according to the federal government that controls the purse strings.

They don’t want large numbers of intellectually disabled people living together, and Hope House director Lynne Seagle says it’s for good reason.

“We thought that was a great idea then we learned over the last three decades that it wasn’t a good idea,” Seagle said.

Hope House closed its last group home in 1994. Seagle says it’s a myth that large or sequestered facilities provide a safer environment.

“I’ve never met anyone that can’t be supported in their own home,” Seagle said. “Families can choose a lot on behalf of people with disabilities, but for a person with a disability to really choose it takes a different process,” Seagle said.

Her office supports individuals in the community using staff and technology.

But Julie Harshaw doesn’t agree. “My own son wouldn’t survive a day like that. He would walk out of an apartment and right in front of a car, and he wouldn’t think twice about it… the system is broken and I think that educating people about it is the only way we’re going to fix it.”

Several states, including Florida, have allowed people to live in group settings.

DeSteph asked Attorney General Mark Herring for a legal opinion. His office refused, telling 10 On Your Side that the Department of Medical Assistance Services decides who is qualified.

“This is an overreach, this is ridiculous, we need to make sure we stand up and fight for this,” DeSteph said.

DeSteph hopes to bring this to debate in the Virginia State Senate in the first part of January.