A federal judge on Wednesday approved a settlement in a class-action lawsuit against the Florida Agency for Persons with Disabilities about the way the agency notified clients that their funding for services would be cut.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker accepted the settlement, which requires the agency to restore funding within 60 days to anyone who suffered a cut during the agency's transition to the iBudget system, a revamped program that funds services for about 30,000 developmentally disabled Floridians.
Also, the agency is required to revise its notices to clients about future budget allocations. From now on, identical copies of notices that change benefits will be sent to caregivers and guardians -- in their primary language -- as well as to the clients themselves.
"It's a very significant settlement in terms of ensuring that vulnerable people with developmental disabilities who receive services from the state are being given all of the rights they're entitled to under both the Medicaid Act and the Constitution," said Kirsten Clanton, an attorney with Southern Legal Counsel Inc. of Gainesville, representing the plaintiffs.
Clanton said those entitlements include changes in the agency's policies regarding notices of cuts in benefits to people with disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.
APD also agreed to pay the plaintiffs' attorneys' fees and costs.
"After an extensive litigation where the issues, we feel, were fully and properly vetted by both sides and the court, we've reached an amicable solution that addresses the constitutional issues raised by the plaintiffs in this case," said Glenn Burhans, an attorney with Greenberg Traurig, which represented the agency.
The hearing was devoted mainly to housekeeping issues, such as specific language in court documents, since Walker had already approved a preliminary settlement.
"I find the settlement is reasonable, fair and adequate," he said Wednesday.
The lawsuit was brought by 10 named plaintiffs who were affected by the agency's transition to the iBudget system over the last two years. The agency and the Legislature had long grappled with how to provide services while reining in costs, and after years of deficits at APD, lawmakers signed off on the iBudget system, which began being phased in across the state in October 2011.
The basic concept of iBudgets is to provide set amounts of money to the agency's clients, depending on their needs, and to give them flexibility in how the money is spent on their services. That differs from past systems that required money to be spent on specific services.
But the new system has led to cuts in many "cost plans," which drive how much APD clients receive overall.
Representatives of Southern Legal Counsel argued that when APD clients got their notices, no information was included about why funds were being reduced.
"The resolution of this case involves providing a notice that specifies individualized reasons for the reductions in funding for each particular client as a member of the class," Burhans said.
Walker said the process of calculating individual allocations had no bearing on the settlement.
"We're not here discussing a specific allocation," he said. "That will be for a different time in a different court."
APD did not run a deficit during the 2012-13 fiscal year, and officials partly credit iBudgets for that. The 2013 Legislature also provided money to take hundreds of people off a longstanding waiting list for services.