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OUR OPINION: Looking for answers for people with disabilities

Two weekend reads in the Twin Cities media highlight how far American society has to go to ensure proper care for people with disabilities.

The first story appeared Sunday in the Star Tribune newspaper of Minneapolis under the headline, “Sick, frail and abandoned by home care firms.”

“Home health care companies now deploy an army of more than 100,000 personal care assistants in Minnesota, serving thousands of frail and ailing patients,” the story reports.

“But they operate without the kind of oversight that is routinely given to licensed care facilities such as nursing homes, and their workers are often low paid and poorly trained. Despite the industry’s rapid growth, most states have no minimum training requirements for personal care attendants in their programs. Minnesota requires only that they take a 25-question, multiple-choice exam that can be completed in just a few minutes.”

The result is a “catastrophe” in which a great many patients get grossly inadequate care, said the chairman of long-term care and aging at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “But the catastrophe has gone largely unnoticed because it’s happening in thousands of individual, isolated homes,” he said in the story.

The second story appeared on “Minnesota’s jails turn into storehouses for people with mental illness,” the headline read.

“It’s a huge problem in the state’s largest jail in Hennepin County, where Sheriff Rich Stanek estimates between 25 percent to 30 percent of prisoners suffer from diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illness,” according to the story.

“As state budgets have shrunk, resources have been squeezed for mental-health treatment and beds in communities. The state’s jails have become the de facto storehouses for people with mental illness, who pose dangers to not only themselves, but also jail staffers and other inmates.”

Notably, the story points to a “best practice” in another state: the Central Receiving Center in Orange County, Fla.

“There are no beds at the CRC,” the story reports.

“The facility operates more like traffic control center to navigate the state’s complex mental health system.”

Here’s how it works. “Once an individual arrives” — often, after being picked up by police — “ the CRC goes to work evaluating them and finding the appropriate facility and bed for treatment within the state’s human-services system.” The placement takes about 10 hours on average, “and no one waits more than 24 hours.”

“The CRC also became a single point for data collection on people with mental illness in the county. They were able to target so-called ‘frequent flyers’ in the system and focus targeted care on repeat users.”

The program costs Orange County taxpayers about $2 million a year, but it “has saved about $20 million in correctional costs by avoiding more than 100,000 jail bed days,” officials said in testimony before Congress.

The CRC’s example is important because it shows the power of America’s “laboratory of the states.” Americans have had quarrels about these issues for years; but solving a problem is the most powerful persuader of all.

So, rather than despair after reading of social-service challenges, look for lessons learned in other states. Our country has come a long way through that kind of trial and error, and the still-effective method promises to take us a longer way still.