HELENA — A bill to phase out the Montana Developmental Center was revived Wednesday after being “blasted” from a committee where it had been tabled and thought to be dead.
Sen. Mary Caferro, D-Helena and sponsor of Senate Bill 254, told her fellow senators that it is important to have a full discussion on the floor to clear up “misinformation and inaccuracies” surrounding the measure regarding the state-run facility in Boulder.
“A lot of misinformation has been circulated and it has a flawed fiscal note,” Caferro said. “Given the opportunity to have this bill on the floor for a second reading will allow me to show you that it has cost savings.
“People are being held there that deserve to be in our communities. We need to shine a light on this and everybody needs to hear all the arguments for and against the bill.”
Sen. Terry Murphy, R-Cardwell, whose district includes Boulder, is the vice chair of the Senate Public Health Committee that killed the bill Friday. He argued that the committee heard “hours” of testimony on the bill and still voted to table it.
“On a 5-to-2 bipartisan vote, we said it’s not ready for prime time and shouldn’t be passed,” Murphy said.
Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, agreed that Montana isn’t ready to put some members of MDC into the general population, and he warned that the state has a terrible history with deinstitutionalization.
“The system that we have out there that would be expected to take on those patients is not funded to a level it needs,” Wanzenried said. “We all agree there are problems at MDC, but this bill is not realistic.”
Caferro’s bill calls for creating a committee to plan the reduction of MDC’s population to no more than 12 people by the end of 2014. The committee also would decide whether a scaled-down facility at Boulder should be retained or whether clients who needed the type of care MDC is supposed to provide should be treated at other state facilities.
Currently, MDC houses about 50 people, and has 250 employees and a $15 million budget. It costs the state an average of $270,000 per client per year to operate the facility.
Caferro noted that she wrote SB254 after learning of a 2010 rape of a client by an employee at MDC and the ensuing botched investigation by MDC, which eventually led to a Department of Justice report that alleged additional sexual assaults at the facility. Because the facility houses clients with developmental disabilities and about half also have a mental illness, only the 2010 rape was successfully prosecuted since the additional cases were deemed too difficult to take to trial.
Critics like Caferro said the facility has shown a “pattern of abuse” toward clients.
Since the 2010 sexual assault, the Department of Public Health and Human Services, which runs MDC, has appointed Gene Haire as the new director at the state institution. The department also has a new director, Richard Opper, and both he and Haire said they’re overhauling MDC’s focus and improving staff training.
However, Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, and Sen. Art Wittich, R-Bozeman, said they’d like to hear full and robust debate on the Senate floor.
“It’s unfortunate for the rest of us that don’t get to hear the testimony and discussion for or against the bill,” Windy Boy said. “I would like to participate in that discussion here.”
The bill was “blasted” by a 35 to 13 vote, which means it had enough support to pull the tabled bill out of the public health committee. It will have a second reading Thursday after the Senate convenes at 1 p.m.