With less than two weeks before the state pulls grant money for a clinical program that serves 2,700 developmentally disabled Tennesseans, advocates have organized an 11th-hour effort to save it.
Geared toward supporting TEAM Centers Inc., parents last weekend fired off numerous emails to reporters and state lawmakers, asking for help in a situation they say gets more urgent as Aug. 12 nears -- the day TEAM officials have designated as the program's last.
"At this point, we have nothing to lose," said Signal Mountain resident Sandy Lusk, whose 14-year-old autistic son Kyle receives regular help from TEAM.
Last month, the Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities announced that a $774,000 grant, long awarded by the state for diagnosis and evaluation at TEAM, would end. Parents were outraged.
The letters written this weekend hammer the state on a few points, mostly focusing on how Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Jim Henry never announced a backup plan for affected patients, failed to notify local legislators of the cuts and gave TEAM Centers only three months to raise $774,000 after telling the clinic that the grant was not coming.
"We're stressed because you'd think he'd be an advocate for us," said Lusk. "We're up against a brick wall with somebody who doesn't listen to the special-needs community."
Attempts to reach Henry were unsuccessful Monday.
Last week, Henry told the Chattanooga Times Free Press that children, who constitute the bulk of TEAM's patients, are not his department's responsibility and fall under the Department of Education's.
State law appears to say otherwise.
Under the heading "Responsibilities for department" it states: "The [Tennessee Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities] serves as the state's mental health and developmental disabilities authority and is responsible for system planning, setting policy and quality standards, system monitoring and evaluation ... for persons of all ages who have mental illness, serious emotional disturbance, or developmental disabilities."
The state offered a $193,000 grant to TEAM to keep the program running for three months so other source of operating money could be found, but officials at TEAM decided to spend grant on severance packages and other "shutdown costs." When state officials were informed of those plans, they withdrew the grant offer.
But parents have united on what they feel is a realistic goal -- asking legislators to lobby for funding for the current fiscal year, which began July 1, so they can organize and find alternate revenue sources. It's unclear how TEAM would function at this point, given that at least five senior staffers at TEAM were hired last month by the Center for Pediatric Therapy, a Chattanooga-based special-needs operation.
State Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, is among several lawmakers who've written letters to Henry or otherwise inquired about the situation.
"At least as of the moment, I've not received a response," Berke said in a phone interview Monday. "We're up against the wall in terms of time. These parents are going to be dealing with problems long after Aug. 12.
"My hope is we're waiting because [the department] is reassessing or looking at real alternatives."
Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6610.