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Wyoming Life Resource Center

LANDER – Developmentally disabled residents at the Wyoming Life Resource Center should not be forcibly moved to programs in their communities, a new state report concludes.

While community programs offer less expensive care, a forced transfer could cause physical and emotional harm to the center’s roughly 90 residents, many of whom have lived there for most of their lives, according to the Wyoming Department of Health report.

“We feel there would be some jeopardy to those clients if we, in a sense, picked them up and moved them into a community setting,” Health Department Director Tom Forslund said.

The Lander center cares for people with severe developmental disabilities. Many also exhibit significant behavioral problems.

Residents often require intensive support, and meeting those demands is expensive. The state spends an average of $306,000 annually on each person who lives at the center.

Lawmakers earlier this year asked the Health Department to study the most effective way to care for residents. Forslund and other health officials presented their findings Monday to the Legislature’s Labor, Health and Social Services Committee.

They advised against moving residents against their will, even while acknowledging community-based programs tend to cost less money. Instead, Forslund offered other ways for the state to reduce costs.

Most notably, health officials suggest new staffing ratios that would eliminate roughly 114 positions at the life resource center. That would bring staffing more in line with similar facilities in other states, though it would still be higher than the national average.

The cuts would save the state between $4 million and $5 million annually, according to the report. The center now costs nearly $29 million a year to operate.

Nearly 90 percent of the center’s costs relate to personnel, Forslund said.

“If you want to save money, that’s where you have to focus on,” he said.

Staffing cuts have already started through attrition, Forslund said. The Health Department hasn’t received any direction to lay off employees, and officials would prefer to make reductions through further attrition and incentives such as early retirement.

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The report suggests eliminating free meals for staff could also save money. The state currently spends about $1.8 million to run the center’s food service. Only a relatively small portion goes to providing meals for the actual residents, Forslund said.

Health officials began the study in March. They found that a majority of residents have lived at the center for at least three-quarters of their lives. Moving them to community programs would mean a lower quality of life, according to family members and guardians surveyed for the report.

“We heard time and again, the guardians did not want their family members removed from the life resource center and put back in a community setting,” Forslund said.

The study comes weeks after the center’s director, Virginia Wright, chose to retire. Her departure came after investigators with a disability advocacy group published their own report that found old and poorly maintained building at the Lander campus pose a significant risk to residents.

Wyoming Protection & Advocacy System further alleged staff at the center failed to secure dangerous areas and lock away potentially harmful chemicals. It also accused workers of failing to take adequate steps to address suicide risks, including leaving residents with easy access to items they could use to harm themselves.

The legislative committee set aside time to discuss the Protection & Advocacy System report, but no one from the agency came forward when called during Monday’s meeting. Lawmakers then left for a tour of the life resource center. The press and other members of the public were barred from attending because of privacy concerns.

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Contact Joshua Wolfson at 307-266-0582 or at josh.wolfson@trib.com. Visit http://trib.com/news/opinion/blogs/wolfjammies to read his blog. Follow him on Twitter @joshwolfson.

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