The Christie administration has said saving money is the central reason why it is moving ahead with the controversial Return Home New Jersey policy that involves transferring hundreds of people with disabilities from out-of-state facilities into group homes licensed by the state.
But when members of the Assembly Budget Committee Monday asked how much money New Jersey has saved so far, they did not get an answer.
"We have not budgeted any money as a savings," acting Human Services Commissioner Elizabeth Connolly told the committee, promising she would get back to them with the information.
"If there is no economic benefit, what is the purpose of the program?" asked Assembly Budget Committee Chairman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic). "This is a major initiative affecting hundreds of families. It would seem you would have that available."
In her first budget appearance as the department's new commissioner, Connolly said returning these people from outside the state and enrolling them into Medicaid would net the state more federal money to pay for their care. But she did not know Monday how much has been saved so far by relocating 170 people. Another 382 people are slated to be returned to New Jersey.
The cost of maintaining them is $48.3 million, most of which is borne by the state. The federal government pays $1.4 million and the clients' Social Security checks pay $3.3 million, according to a budget analysis released by the non-partisan Office of Legislative Services.
Discussion and criticism of the Return Home New Jersey initiative, which Gov. Jon Corzine launched in 2009 but gained momentum when Christie became governor in 2010, dominated the four-hour hearing on the department's $18 billion proposed budget. The legislature passed a bill to roll back the policy last year but Christie rejected it. At a March 4 town hall meeting, Christie defended his decision, saying he needed to obtain as much federal aid as possible to help the many people waiting for services.
"Let me be clear: I am not going to eliminate the 'Return Home New Jersey' program," Christie said, "It is not that I don't care. It's that I have some very tough decisions to make. There's a finite amount of money. It's a matter of, where can you do the most good and where can you do the least harm?"
But the policy is disruptive and harmful because it is taking people with significant intellectual and developmental disabilities who have lived in facilities they have been comfortable with for years, and many for decades, Assemblywoman Eliana Pinter Marin (D-Essex) said. "We have to take a step back. These are individuals with severe disabilities, and now we have interrupted their lives."
Assemblyman Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) agreed. "Are we better off leaving them in the out-of-state placements where they have been for years?"
Assemblywoman Valeri Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), pointed out Return Home New Jersey is not a law, but a policy that the state could reverse at will. She noted that just last week, the department retracted a proposal that would have uprooted potentially thousands of people in state-licensed group homes after more than 1,000 people opposed it. "What would it take for you to abandon Return Home New Jersey?"
Connolly said the two proposals "are very different things."
Huttle said she's heard from some families the state will withdraw its financial support in June if their loved ones remain outside the state -- a statement Connolly said was not true.
Huttle said she's spoken to dozens of families who have visited group homes in New Jersey and have rejected them for their children because they do not provide the close supervision and medical expertise they require.
Connolly replied that New Jersey has a more active monitoring program than many other states and would do more to protect their safety.
Huttle disagreed. "The best people to analyze their care would be the family. They would know best if their loved ones were being cared for, correct? Without question, if those facilities were not safe, the family would say I want my son or daughter transferred out."