State inks new health services deal with nonprofit Mercy Care
A federal judge on Wednesday gave final approval to a settlement with Arizona that puts an end to a six-year legal battle over the foster care system, but not before hearing from skeptics about whether the state will be able to keep its promises to some of society’s most vulnerable youngsters.
Judge Roslyn Silver listened patiently as multiple members of the public, speaking online via Zoom and in the courtroom in Phoenix, talked about their difficult experiences with the state’s child welfare system, according to the Arizona Republic. She had tentatively approved the settlement in October, so her final approval was expected.
Silver expressed sympathy but reminded them that her role was to either reject or accept the agreement reached by child welfare advocates who sued the state Department of Child Safety (DCS) and the state Medicaid agency on foster children’s behalf. She was powerless, she said, to alter the terms or to remedy individual situations. In her view, the settlement should greatly improve a system that child advocates originally alleged “shocks the conscience.”
While no system can ever be perfect, Silver judged that on balance, the agreement “will substantially improve what we had at the outset of this litigation.” She reminded the community members that she and the plaintiffs’ lawyers will keep tabs on whether the state lives up to the terms of the agreement between now and the end of 2025. That’s when Silver plans to close the book on the court case, which was filed in 2015 by local and national child advocates, including New York-based law firm Children’s Rights.
The final agreement requires the state to give foster children quicker access to behavioral health services; keep track of how many children get access to mental health and dental care within 30 days of entering foster care; place more kids in family-like settings, such as with relatives or foster parents rather than in institution-like group homes, and give DCS workers more time to manage the cases of children and families.
DCS recently announced that all of those health services would be delivered through a single contract that it’s hoping will integrate the current fragmented approach. Starting in April, coverage of all three areas – behavioral, physical and dental health will be wrapped conveniently through the new Mercy Care/Department of Child Safety Comprehensive Health Plan.
Mercy Care, along with DCS, will oversee the provision of physical and behavioral health services, with the goal of ensuring seamless care for all children involved in the child welfare system.
The partnership, under a statewide contract, will serve all Arizona children in the Department of Children’s Safety’s out-of-home care, whether they’re on Medicaid or not. Rather than continuing with separate regional entities, DCS offices and staff throughout the state will work through one system.
Robert Ellman, the lawyer who represented DCS, said the settlement agreement was made possible in part by the state’s reducing the number of children in foster care to 13,500, compared with 19,000 when the suit was filed.
But some of the community members who addressed the judge said they felt the oversight and accountability plan is lacking.
Arizona spent more than $7 million fighting the lawsuit before agreeing to the settlement, according to the Arizona Republic.