A Senate panel on Wednesday delayed action on a bill that would place the state's disabilities agency in the governor's control, after senators said they were confused about how the agency operates and wanted to wait for the results of two legislative oversight reviews of the agency have not yet started.
"I think there are some things we can do to help the situation," said Sen. Paul Campbell, chairman of the medical affairs subcommittee. "But at this point, I don't want to make it worse."
Senators had appeared ready to debate and vote on the concept of the bill, which would place the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs in the governor's cabinet and make the current governing seven-member commission an advisory body.
But as several asked basic questions about how the DDSN system worked, some said they had become much more confused and wanted more information.
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Sen. Brad Hutto, an Orangeburg Democrat, said after asking multiple questions about how providers, county disabilities agencies and the state agency work together, said, "I'm just, the best word is confused, right now," likening explanations of the system to understanding French.
Sen. Katrina Shealy, a Lexington Republican, also said she was confused.
"I was so where I needed to be on this earlier, but where this bill is and now where I think we need to go is like a whole another place," she said. "I thought we were talking about the top. But now I think we need to go someplace else."
The confusion and questions centered on the relationship between the state and local disability boards, which contract with DDSN to provide services but are made up of local employees overseen by local boards. Senators wanted to know if the governor directly controls DDSN, what impact that would have on local agencies, where they said it appears some of the problems have been.
Sen. Tom Corbin, a Travelers Rest Republican, asked why the panel should even act on the bill before Senate and House oversight reviews of the agency are complete, something that is not expected to be done until later this year, likely after lawmakers have adjourned.
Sen. John Scott, a Columbia Democrat and sponsor of the bill, told the panel he did not want the bill to languish the same way it did last year. Campbell said staff needed to gather more information and he did not know how long that would take.
"I just think this body is not sure what to do," a frustrated Scott said afterward. "I think that is the frightening part about it. If we don't do something, I'm going to be right back next year trying to deal with this issue. But at some point you have to make tough decisions."
Scott argued to the panel that the current system is "broken" and it should be given to the executive branch to fix. If the local part of the system needs restructuring, he said, the governor can do that after the agency is placed under his control.
The idea of placing DDSN under the direct control of the governor has been backed by former Gov. Nikki Haley, Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey and Senate Medical Affairs Committee Chairman Harvey Peeler.
The agency currently is governed by a commission, which is appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the Senate. The commission hires the executive director.
Management of the agency, which oversees the care of tens of thousands of South Carolinians with intellectual disabilities, autism, and brain or spinal injuries, has long been a political issue as governors have attempted to grapple with problems at DDSN.
Interest in the past year has been renewed following articles in The Greenville News detailing allegations of abuse and neglect of vulnerable adults, audits of local disabilities boards detailing financial problems in some counties, problems with a private provider that has prompted DDSN to freeze admissions three times, a lack of participation in medications training by DDSN providers and delays in addressing recommendations in years-old audits by the Legislative Audit Council.
The decision to postpone action followed testimony for a second day from those who came to speak to the panel in favor or against the bill.
Among those was DDSN Executive Director Beverly Buscemi, who told the panel it was not her place to weigh in on governance issues. She added that some of the matters discussed in testimony during the past two weeks occurred before she became executive director seven years ago.
Among those speaking against the bill were several parents of those cared for in DDSN regional centers and a representative of providers, as well as a representative of a state brain injury association, who voiced concerns about what qualifications might be required for a director if hired by the governor, how transparent the process would be and whether any action taken now would be premature if oversight reviews have not been complete.
Linda Lee of Prosperity, speaking against the bill, said she thinks some of those who want the system changed "didn't get what they want" but said the system can't accommodate everyone.
She praised the agency for cutting its waiting list for services in recent years and ranking ninth in 2013 data for performance in a national review.
Richard Johnson, a parent of a disabled child from Berkeley County, pointed to some cabinet agencies that have been the focus of problems in recent years.
"DDSN doesn't need to be in that same category," he said.
The chairman of the association representing 42 DDSN providers and an Irmo parent asked the panel to table the bill until the legislative oversight reviews are complete.
Charles Hall, who said he has been the recipient of services in the head and spinal cord injury program since 2000 and last year opposed a similar bill, told senators Wednesday he now liked the idea of giving the agency to the governor because he said it would give greater voice to people with disabilities in the cabinet. But he said he would like lawmakers to go further and examine local disabilities boards and to define the qualifications for DDSN's director.
John Harrison, a CPA and the husband of a lawyer who represents several clients in litigation with DDSN, said he favors the bill because it would increase accountability.
He pointed to findings of a critical 2008 Legislative Audit Council report and argued the agency should have no control over any funds for direct client services. The agency, he told senators, should only determine eligibility, provide training and monitor services.
Ed Paxton of Greenville said he had mixed feelings about the bill, saying that if the agency was under the governor's control it would only "marginally improve things."
He said lawmakers should focus on the state's Medicaid agency and change a rule that prohibits parents of disabled children, even when they have quit their jobs to care for their child, from receiving benefits.
Ricky Bryant of Lexington, who has fought along with his wife, Brenda, against the system for years concerning the care of their intellectually disabled daughter, said she was abused multiple times while cared for by different local providers, resulting in litigation that reached the state Supreme Court.
"The agency as we see it is corrupt," he said. "I think it's time for a change."