REGIONAL NEWS - September 2019

Federal court denies state’s motion to end oversight

By Jane McClure
Federal court oversight of the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) actions and policies affecting Minnesotans with disabilities needs to continue, according to an August 28 U.S. District Court ruling. A DHS request to end court oversight was rejected, as an 11-page ruling cited continued concerns with state compliance.

The ruling is the latest action centered on a 2011 court settlement and the state’s Olmstead Plan.

The mandated plan is meant to ensure that Minnesota is committed to inclusion for all people with disabilities. DHS is the lead defendant.

Plaintiffs in the case are James and Lorie Jensen, James Brinker and Darren Allen, and Elizabeth Jacobs. All are parents of people who were at the Minnesota Extended Treatment Options (METO) facility in Cambridge.

The parents took action against the state due to ongoing concerns about the way METO residents were treated and were disciplined, sometimes for seemingly minor infractions. A key objection was to use of seclusion and restraint on residents. The class action case began in 2009 and was settled in 2011.

The Jensen case covered about 300 people who had been secluded or restrained while at METO from July 1, 1997 through May 11, 2011. METO residents were restrained and secluded, and punished for infractions that included touching a pizza box.

The case had many key outcomes, including the closing of METO and changes to its successor facility. Families received a monetary settlement. Importantly, it also led to Minnesota jump-starting it Olmstead Plan process after years of inaction.

The biannual conferences on Olmstead and the Jensen settlement provide the court with required updates on both matters. The Olmstead office and DHS are able to present their progress, and the plaintiffs are able to bring up areas that haven’t been addressed. District Court Judge Donovan Frank and Magistrate Becky Thorson presided over the most recent review this spring.

DHS has tried for the past several years to end court jurisdiction over the Jensen settlement. The court has repeatedly denied that request.

The August ruling stated, “As soon as the court receives sufficient evidence that defendants are in compliance with the agreement, and that its jurisdiction may come to a just and equitable end, the court will end its jurisdiction. While defendants may not like the court’s decision to extend its jurisdiction, a manifest error of law is created by disregard, misapplication, or failure to recognize controlling precedent—not disappointment by an unhappy party.”

As of Access Press deadline, the state hadn’t indicated its next steps.

The ruling indicated that the court and state officials continue to disagree on what is needed to end the case. A January court order called for a comprehensive summary report to assess the status of state compliance with the agreement and to determine whether its jurisdiction could end. While state officials contend they have provided enough information to show full compliance with the agreement, the court continues to have concerns and continues to ask for specific actions to be taken.

“It appears to the court that defendants’ motion is an attempt to reargue their position that they are in full compliance with the agreement and that anything else they could do is beyond the scope of the agreement. The court has already considered these arguments and rejected them,” the ruling stated.

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Athlete seeks another season

An Osseo Senior High baseball player is suing the Minnesota State High School League after he was refused an extra year of eligibility. The senior, who is not named in court records, has played baseball for his school each year since the seventh grade. But because he repeated ninth grade, he has used up all six years of eligibility under league rules.

The student in March asked the league to make an exception because of his disability. Court records indicate he has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and a learning disorder. “His success in baseball has been critical to his self-confidence, mental health and sense of belonging,” court documents stated.

The league’s eligibility committee and board of directors denied the request, saying the student never lost the opportunity to participate in sports for 12 consecutive semesters.

The league grants eligibility exceptions in some cases, such as students who are forced to withdraw from school. Officials determined the Osseo student didn’t qualify.

The lawsuit states that a seventh year of eligibility would represent a “reasonable accommodation of his disability” under the state’s Human Rights Act.

The lawsuit against both the league and the Osseo school district initially was filed in Hennepin County District Court. Lawyers agreed to move it to federal court in August. (Source: Pioneer Press)

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Activist sues police department

Activist Noah McCourt of Waconia is taking on another Twin Cities area police department. McCourt, who earlier this year settled a lawsuit with Chaska for blocking his access to the city’s social media accounts, is now suing the Bloomington Police Department for allegedly blocking people from its social media. McCourt hasn’t been blocked from the Bloomington department’s social media.

McCourt is suing on First Amendment grounds because another citizen, Sumaya Aden, said she was blocked from the Bloomington police Twitter account. Aden had posted tweets criticizing Bloomington police after a four-hour standoff last month in which her brother, 23-year-old Isak Aden of Columbia Heights, was shot and killed.

The standoff occurred in Eagan, where neighboring police departments assisted Eagan police. The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension later identified five officers who fired their weapons and were placed on administrative leave, one from Eagan and the remaining four from Bloomington.

Aden posted more than a dozen tweets blasting Bloomington police, some accusing officers of “murdering” her brother. She said the department then blocked her and possibly others from accessing its Twitter account.

She asked others to tweet the Bloomington police and “ask why 4 of their officers murdered my brother & then proceed to block ME, a concerned & frustrated sister looking for answers instead of … working with my family to give us the answers that we need to help us understand the reasoning behind my brothers murder.”

McCourt said Aden gave him a screenshot of what appears to be the Bloomington police Twitter page, which goes by “@BPD_MN” and says: “You are blocked from following @BPD_MN or viewing @BPD_MN’s tweets.” McCourt, who serves on the state’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, calls himself an activist “who pays attention to police brutality around the state.” In May he received a $1,005 settlement from Chaska, which had blocked him from the city’s Twitter account. The city was ordered to restore McCourt’s access and train staffers on First Amendment applications to social media accounts. (Source: Star Tribune)

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Housing support approved as new Medicaid benefit

Minnesota seniors and people with disabilities soon will have more help finding and keeping housing, thanks to new services coming to the state’s Medicaid program next year.

On August 1 Minnesota received federal approval of housing stabilization services as a basic Medicaid benefit. The new services will be available to seniors and people with disabilities — including mental illness and substance use disorder — who are homeless, living in institutions, or at risk of becoming homeless or institutionalized. The benefit will start in July 2020. When fully implemented, an estimated 7,600 people will receive these services.

“This important addition to the Medicaid program will give Minnesotans more ways to find and keep housing,” said Acting Human Services Commissioner Pam Wheelock. “This is a big step toward ending homelessness, while also making sure people live with self-determination and dignity.”

In 2017, the Minnesota Department of Human Services asked the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to add Housing Stabilization Services to the state Medicaid plan.

Most current housing services provide short-term assistance only during a crisis or transition. The new services will increase long-term stability by supporting people to plan for, find and move into their own homes, while also helping people stay in their own homes in the community.

Minnesota Housing Commissioner Jennifer Leimaile Ho welcomed news of the housing benefit and the positive impact it will have.

“Far too many people are experiencing homelessness and there is a lack of housing that’s affordable,” she said. “This new benefit will help build a stronger link between where people want to live and the services they need to have stability in their lives.”

Advocates will help people with disabilities and seniors find and keep housing, addressing potential challenges such as budgeting, interacting with landlords and neighbors, and understanding leases. (Source: Minnesota Department of Human Services)

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Woman challenges job loss

Shannon Enstad had a rough winter in 2018. She tore her ACL. In order to knit the ligament in her knee back together, she had surgery in March. But it would still take six months to fully heal–along with regular physical therapy.

She was ready to go back to work in April. She told her employer, Eden Prairie payroll servicing company called Employer Solutions Group (ESG), and told them that she’d be returning on crutches. The pain from her knee was still intense, and she wasn’t able to stand, walk, or lift things as well as she used to, but she assumed she could do her job as an account manager.

However, according to a complaint filed by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in August, ESG told her she couldn’t return because she “was not 100 percent healed.”

“ESG asserted, without any objective evidence, that Enstad would be a safety risk if she returned on crutches,” the complaint stated. And that’s why ESG fired her.

Enstad had turned to the commission for help because she believed she’d been fired for her disability, however temporary. Commission staff invited ESG to talk and “provide appropriate relief.” But the company failed to cooperate. The commission is suing ESG for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Commission officials are calling this case not just “illegal,” but “inexplicable.”

“The issue here was so minor,” Chicago District Office Director Julianne Bowman said in a statement. “This employee needed to use crutches for a short time after returning from short-term disability leave. The employer fired her for it, which was inappropriate, short-sighted, and unlawful.”

ESG declined to comment. (Source: City Pages)

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UCare announces insulin cost cap

UCare, an independent, nonprofit health plan, has filed its final 2020 MNsure Individual and Family plan benefits and rates with the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

The filing provides members who have diabetes with financial relief through a $25 cap on monthly insulin costs, effective Jan. 1, 2020. Rounding out UCare’s suite of diabetes services, the cap applies to all insulin covered by the members’ plan and is available with UCare’s current plans and new HSA plans.

“When we designed our 2020 Individual and Family plans, we gave considerable attention to helping our members with diabetes afford insulin,” said Mark Traynor, president and chief executive officer. “As the health plan with the largest enrollment through MNsure, we felt a special responsibility to be part of a solution to this important public health issue.”

The pharmacy benefit completes UCare’s full slate of diabetes programs supporting optimal health for members living with diabetes.

The cost relief is made possible by recent IRS guidance allowing coverage for insulin benefits outside of a deductible for certain high-deductible health plans. UCare partnered with pharmacy benefit manager and insulin manufacturers on a plan to bring down the monthly cost of insulin for members. (Source: UCare)

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Complaint is under investigation

The St. Paul Fire Department is investigating a complaint filed against a fire captain who responded to a call at a mental health care clinic in August.

Psych Recovery on University Avenue filed the complaint after clinic staff called 911 for an emergency transport of a suicidal person. Clinic staff said the captain refused to transport the patient.

“It doesn’t provide adequate care for treating people’s illnesses,” said CEO Sarah Anderson of the response to the incident by the fire department.

The patient involved made comments indicating to staff that immediate hospital services were required. Clinic staff then sought transport for an emergency admission to a hospital. The captain disagreed with the clinic staff’s assessment of the situation, saying that the patient seemed competent and didn’t appear to be in need of hospitalization. Transport was then refused.

Psych Recovery staff said they provided the patient with additional resources for care.

“The city is actively engaged in assuring our responders have the tools, training and resources needed to appropriately and effectively respond to these calls for assistance,” said Matt Simpson, St Paul Fire Assistant Chief of Emergency Medical Services. “There is a commitment in assuring that we are positioned to provide the proper level of care and assistance to all who rely on our services in a time of need.” (Source: KSTP-TV)

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Goodwill marks century in Duluth

A century ago, Goodwill Industries was established in Duluth with the mission: “Not charity but a chance.” The nonprofit employs hundreds of people with disabilities.

The work itself has evolved over the years, as different initiatives ebbed and flowed, and Goodwill merged with Duluth Sheltered Workshop.

The challenges have evolved, too, just as they have at all brick-and-mortar apparel and furniture outlets. Goodwill thrift stores in the region saw sales drop nearly 8 percent between the most recent fiscal years, and online sales were flat.

For the next 100 years, maintaining the mission will mean bolstering the business model.

The 10th Goodwill in the country opened in Duluth in 1919 and employed 24 people within a year. “Collections were good and with three stores for outlet of goods there were ready sales for all the reconditioned clothing, shoes and furniture that was possible to get through the shops,” an early history recounted.

Though that building burned within the next decade and countless other locations came and went, Goodwill managed to meet a prediction set in 1928: “If everything goes without a set back the Duluth Goodwill is now on a sound basis and with a prosperous outlook.”

Today it employs 408 people at 15 thrift store locations around the Northland and assists hundreds more throughout the region with community-based employment. (Source: Duluth News-Tribune)

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State capitol improves access

People with hearing loss or in wheelchairs will find some parts of the state capitol easier to navigate after changes that were completed during the summer.

Two ramps were added on the capitol grounds to provide access to gardens on the south side of the building. Gov. Tim Walz celebrated the new ramps during a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“The completion of this project marks another step in our commitment to making sure the state capitol is truly the people’s house,” he said in a statement.

The work is the latest major accessibility change since a three-year. $310 million top-to-bottom capitol renovation and restoration project was completed in 2017. (Source: Star Tribune)

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Advocates raise concerns after man is killed

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) is investigating an officer-involved shooting that left a 21-year-old Brooklyn Center man dead. Neighbors said the man was on the autism spectrum.

Brooklyn Center police August 31 responded to a call that a man was fighting with his grandparents and threatening them with a hammer. The man was shot and killed by police after a struggle. He was identified as 21-year-old Kobe Heisler.

Heisler lived with his grandparents and had autism. Neighbors said the family was quiet and that Heisler grew up playing with neighborhood children.

Neighbors said they heard an argument inside the family home before the incident. Heisler’s grandparents have owned the home for more than 50 years.

The Autism Society of Minnesota released a statement about the incident.

We at the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) are deeply saddened by the death of Kobe Heisler. The members of our staff and board grieve for Kobe’s family, along with all who knew and loved him. His life was important. So, too, is his death. Our greater autism community mourns this tragedy. We encourage those who struggle to cope with subsequent sadness, anger, or fear to contact our team for support and resources.

At this time, limited details regarding Kobe’s death have been released. AuSM emphasizes that prevention of incidents such as these should be of utmost priority to law makers, law enforcement, and community members. With diligent commitment to informed and integrated professional training, access to resources and technology, and conscientious relationship-building, we maintain hope that we can together avert tragedy, and achieve safe community for all. As certified trainers of law enforcement officers, emergency responders, and other professionals, AuSM supports all individuals, families, departments, and agencies who share and uphold our commitment to the safety and prosperity of people with autism and other disabilities. AuSM is dedicated to advocacy and education to drive this important facet of our mission.

Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon said in a statement that responding officers were wearing their body cameras. All have been placed on standard administrative leave. One officer sustained minor injuries.