Disabled Arkansans obtain settlement and program improvements in lawsuit against DHS officials

By: - August 7, 2023 5:13 pm

The Arkansas Department of Human Services building on Main Street in downtown Little Rock. (John Sykes/Arkansas Advocate)

Three disabled Arkansans who sued the state Department of Human Services in 2019 over the loss or reduction of home-based Medicaid services have settled their case, Legal Aid of Arkansas announced on Monday.

The state paid $460,000 to resolve the federal lawsuit filed by Ginger Elder of Jonesboro, Bob Taylor of Fayetteville, and Jacquelyn Dearmore of Yellville. Each has received $120,000; and Legal Aid of Arkansas, which represented them, will get $100,000 for legal expenses, according to court documents.

“We are so happy that our clients will finally get some relief for all they suffered,” said Kevin De Liban, Legal Aid’s director of advocacy.

For several months, the three plaintiffs went without needed care, forcing them, among other things, to skip bathing, skip meals, fall while trying to do things on their own, and miss vital medical treatment, De Liban said.

The settlement, filed last month in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, also requires DHS to improve the ARChoices program for the roughly 11,000 people enrolled in it, he said. 

ARChoices provides people with disabilities with home-based attendant care for daily activities. This support helped the plaintiffs stay in their homes instead of entering a nursing facility.

De Liban described the settlement as historic in the scope of its relief.

 Court documents show the state agency must make changes in the way recipients of care under the ARChoices program can appeal discontinuation of benefits and report quarterly to Legal Aid those appeals.

 The three plaintiffs sued four years ago after DHS employed a new tool for assessing their needs. They consequently lost Medicaid services or saw them greatly reduced, and alleged a denial of due process rights after the benefits were cut or terminated while their appeals were pending.

The plaintiffs plan to use the settlement money for basic items to make their daily lives better: medical beds that are easier to get in and out of, functioning motorized wheelchairs made for their bodies and vehicles with modifications to help them get around, De Liban said.

“Their courage in bringing this case and sticking with it for several years will make things better for so many other people,” De Liban added. “We trust that DHS will take the lessons from this case to heart and work with Legal Aid and our client communities to make the state’s Medicaid programs better for everyone.”

Plaintiff Bob Taylor of Fayetteville noted that the cuts in services he endured were not necessarily the fault of DHS’s frontline nurses, emphasizing, “It was the state’s policy and the people who made that policy that were wrong.”

“Everything turned out right and justice prevailed,” he said.

Plaintiff Jacquelyn Dearmore of Yellville said she was “thrilled.”

“It means a lot to find out that other people who need help are going to get it,” she said.

The state had sought to dismiss the case, and U.S. District Judge Kristine Baker denied the DHS motion in March 2022. The state appealed, and in December last year the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 that the suit could move forward. The state then indicated a willingness to negotiate, De Liban said.

Department of Human Services spokesperson Gavin Lesnick said Monday that the department “is committed to ensuring that Medicaid programs provide services to eligible Arkansans who need them, including those who qualify for ARChoices. We are always focused on ways that we can improve our operations and processes so that services are delivered both efficiently and fairly.”

Although Baker accepted the settlement last month, she gave both sides until the end of August to file documents to formally dismiss the case. The court will retain jurisdiction over the case for two years after dismissal “for purposes of enforcing this agreement,” court documents show.

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Sonny Albarado
Sonny Albarado

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. He retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in 2020 after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years and returned to professional journalism in 2022 to lead the Arkansas Advocate. He is a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a current member of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.