NY State’s assault on NYers with brain injuries continues unchecked

The New York State Department of Health is refusing to release the names of the people  drafting the new manual for the state’s Traumatic Brain Injury Waiver.  To his credit, Deputy DOH Commissioner Mark Kissinger has revealed the state’s  opinion of New Yorkers with brain injuries, particularly those participating in the TBI Waiver. He ignores them. He now ignores written requests for the names of those DOH staff (and contract employees, if any, are involved) designing the TBI Waiver Manual. Moreover, the DOH, thus far,  has not honored a Freedom of Information Law request for the names filed by this writer.

The TBI Waiver is a Medicaid program designed to keep those with brain injury disabilities living in the community and to help others return to the community. Kissinger, who has more than once and no doubt will again profess DOH’s desire to work with all stakeholders – has proven that assertion to be glaringly disingenuous. It’s too bad because the likes of the Brain Injury Association of NY State, the state’s Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council, Disability Rights New York (the state’s protection and advocacy agency),  the Kahrmann Advocacy Coalition, along with people with brain injury disabilities, their  families a friends, experts in the field of neurology, and more,  are all willing and eager to work collaboratively with the DOH. The DOH is not interested in collaborating with anyone.

Disrespecting New Yorkers  with brain injury disabilities is nothing new for the DOH. Things have gotten even worse under Governor Andrew Cuomo. Several, who have asked not to be named out of fear of reprisal from the governor, have said Cuomo is something of a bully. I’m not surprised. It would be nice to learn otherwise, but actions speak louder than words and given that Cuomo has a well-earned and even admirable reputation for keeping close tabs on all state agencies, it is impossible to believe he is unaware of the DOH’s disrespectful and ruthless treatment of NYers with brain injury disabilities, not to mention the similar treatment the state inflicts on those waiver providers struggling to provide the best services for their clients. There has not been an increase in reimbursement rates for them since 2007 and providers receive zero reimbursement for training their staff in brain injury.

All this brings us back to the DOH’s refusal to release the names of those designing the TBI Manual. I suspect one of the underpinnings for the refusal is this: those developing the manual have no expertise whatever in the brain or brain injury. A sickening and scary truth.

Please don’t think this is the only example of the DOH savaging the rights of New Yorkers with brain injuries.  Until November 2011,  if you filed a complaint related to the TBI Waiver you were never ever informed of the outcome of the complaint. If you were a waiver participant and your rights were denied in some way or you’d been abused or had your belongings stolen by a staff member and you filed a complaint with the DOH, you were never told the outcome of the complaint. The DOH acknowledges this. And, when it claimed to have changed this policy, agreeing to inform participants of the outcomes of their complaints, one DOH official admitted  the DOH was unable to provide the outcomes for the thousands of complaints previously filed. Given the waiver came to New York in 1995 were talking about complaints filed over a span of 16 years whose outcomes will never be provided to the complainants. Interestingly,  the DOH official who openly admitted the DOH was unable to provide the outcomes to these complaints was none other than Deputy Commissioner Mark Kissinger, the very same DOH official who now ignores requests for information New Yorkers legally have a right to.

You wonder if the likes of Kissinger and Cuomo forget they work for New Yorkers. Perhaps they simply don’t care.

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Backstabbing Cuomo & New Yorkers with disabilities

Examination of proposed changes to the by-laws for a New York State brain injury council reveals a state agency’s attempt to weaken a council, already in disarray, put the council under the state’s control, and weaken the current requirement that people with brain injuries and their families be fairly represented on the council.

The council was signed into being by former New York State Governor Mario Cuomo and the proposed changes are being proposed by current governor Andrew Cuomo’s department of health. It is reasonable to believe, given the current governor’s admirable efforts on behalf of people with disabilities to date,  that the DOH is engaging in practices that violate all Governor Cuomo stands for and all his father stood for.

Now, let’s take a look at these proposed changes.  In one glaring instance of undermining the council, the state DOH proposes removing the following clause from the bylaws in its entirety: “Assuring the appropriate consumer representation of persons with brain injuries and their families is represented in the activities of the Council.”  Were this to be removed the bylaws would in no instance include a requirement that there be ample and fair representation of people with brain injuries and their families on the council. One has to question the council’s willingness to oppose this, especially since the person still claiming to be the vice-chair, even though her term on the council ended more than nine years ago, Judith Avner, the Brain Injury Association of NY State’s executive director, is the very person who blocked persons with brain injury from being on a now defunct committee that was seeking to represent persons with brain injury.

Proposed changes on pages 3 and 4 of the bylaws would, if adopted, allow a  member of a state agency to be the vice-chair of the council (something the current bylaws appropriately blocks because the council is designed to be an independent entity) and the bylaws put the vice-chair in charge of the executive committee. This would allow the state to essentially take over the council, something that must be fought and resisted at all costs.  These proposed changes weaken the requirement for council members attendance (thus weakening the council) by allowing council members to miss two meetings over a period of two years without risking their place on the council rather than two meetings in one year as the current bylaws requires. The council is required to meet a minimum of three times a year,  in case you think the current meeting requirement for council members is too strict.

And then, the DOH proposes a weakening of council documentation. Current bylaws require that a written record of the meeting be mailed out to council members “within 30 days of a meeting.” DOH wants that requirement replaced with “as soon as practicable.”

As a July 5, 2011 post in this blog accurately observed, this council, called the Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council, has never done its job as designed by the state legislature: “Under Article 27-CC of the New York State Public Health Law, the New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council is mandated to recommend long-range objectives, goals and priorities, as well as provide advice on the planning, development and coordination of a comprehensive, statewide TBI program.”” As this blog previously reported , “more than 10 years of TBISCC meeting minutes tell us the council” has “failed to come up with any real comprehensive proposals for the DOH”at all. Not a one.

History tells us this is just fine with the DOH. Over the years the DOH has proven resistant to any kind of real inclusiveness and input. On page 6 of the proposed changes, the DOH wants the word expert removed in a sentence that currently permits the council  (italics mine) “to provide technical and expert assistance to the Council…” Given the DOH’s resistance to input, one can only conclude the ridding themselves of having to deal with real experts makes it even easier for them to reject input.

The DOH has a history of being unfriendly to New Yorkers when it comes to brain injury. Before the TBISCC’s meeting last December, the DOH’s Cheryl Veith (who later said she was directed to do so by her superiors yet refused to identify said superiors) sent out an email that included this:

Executive Law 166
The Department of Health is required, pursuant to Executive Law § 166, to keep a record of those who appear before it.   All attending the meeting need to complete the attached form.  Below is the form that will need to be completed upon your arrival at the TBISCC meeting so it will save time if you complete it before you arrive. Please print the completed form and bring to the meeting.

Several problems with this: The form would require anyone attending to share the personal address and phone number. Second, the law doesn’t apply for two reasons. First, those in attendance are not appearing before the DOH, they are attending a meeting of the TBISCC which is an independent body. Second, the form is meant for lobbyists, not for members of the public who should not and are not required to hand over the personal information at public meetings.  And then, there is this: the TBISCC was perfectly aware of what the DOH was up to, and they said nothing.

This writer contacted Robert Freeman, head of the NY State Committee on Open Government, who confirmed that Executive Law 166 did not apply. Freeman called Deputy DOH Commissioner Mark Kissinger who agreed the law did not apply. Nevertheless, when this writer and others showed up for the meeting, there Veith was, trying to insist members of the public fill out the form.

The DOH and council’s penchant for stiff arming the public  is also revealed by the fact there is a TBISCC meeting this Wednesday, January 23, and still the council and DOH have not released the agenda. The meeting will run from 10:30am to 3:30pm in Meeting Room A of the New York State Museum in Albany.

There are a few bylaw revisions proposed by the DOH that do make sense. Limited the chair’s term to one year rather than two, and having elections by written ballot rather than voice vote. I would also suggest a term-limit clause permitting any chair and or vice-chair to serve no more than two consecutive terms, thus freeing the council from being under the grip of the rather dictatorial likes of former chair Charles Wolf and Michael Kaplen. The latter still claims he is the council’s chair even though his term as chair expired years ago.

Lastly, for now, there is this. Several council members are directly linked to BIANYS and BIANYS gets a sizeable annual grant from the DOH. Is it any wonder that the council has a documented history of not providing the DOH with anything mandated under the above reference Public Health Law? Is it any wonder that the council avoids holding the DOH accountable for some of its destructive behavior towards those with brain injuries who find themselves in the state’s TBI Waiver?

The problems at set forth here go all the way to the top of the DOH. This writer has sent several emails directly to DOH Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah (and called his office several times) outlining the council’s problems. He has never responded. Never mind that the Kahrmann Advocacy Coalition has more members with brain injuries than the BIANYS has had in its entire history.