Mouth asks,

What can the HHS Office of Civil Rights do to help us get the Olmstead ruling implemented?

Velveta SAYS

The OCR believes in civil rights.
The ADA is a civil rights law.




photo of Velveta Howell. She's smiling.



an interview with Velveta Golightly-Howell
by Jennifer Burnett

This interview first appeared in Mouth magazine in May 2000

Velveta Patrice Golightly-Howell has served as the principal legal counsel for the Region VIII Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights, and is now that region's acting manager. She trains states and other "covered entities" in federal civil rights law. She is also a real live negotiator and litigator who has worked as assistant general counsel for the Oil, Chemical & Atomic Workers International Union, and once served as assistant to Congressman William Nichols of Alabama. She is a licensed to practice law in Colorado and New York.

graphic bar

People are afraid to file a complaint, especially when they live in a nursing home or an institution. They fear retaliation. What should they do?



While noting that OCR does not solicit complaints, Velveta said:

I would encourage readers who have civil rights concerns to pick up the phone and contact the OCR [U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Civil Rights] regional manager in their jurisdictions.

Regional managers are always very responsive. Basically, they have an open door policy. People should not hesitate to build relationships with their regional Office of Civil Rights. Tom Perez is Director of the [national] HHS Office of Civil Rights. Under his leadership, OCR is focusing on five priority areas. One of those areas is Olmstead implementation.

When did OCR involvement begin in the Olmstead case?

It began with Helen L.

We had been looking at this issue for quite a while. We were very interested in the Helen L. case. [Helen L. v. Didario, the Pennsylvania case where Steve Gold sued the state under the "most integrated setting" ADA provision on behalf of nursing home inmates in 1992. The Supreme Court declined to hear that case in 1995 and so affirmed the federal appeals court ruling that Helen L. and others similarly situated had a right to live in freedom.]
Legal staff at OCR's central office advised regional offices of continuing developments in Helen L. They kept the regions abreast of new developments by sharing copies of the trial and appellate courts' decisions.
When there are cases of national interest, that have national implications, regional offices have close contact and consultation with our central program and legal office.
Over the years, complaints had been filed in some OCR regional offices that raised issues similar to, if not exactly like, those raised in Helen L.

How can we get OCR involved at the state level?

Filing a complaint will start the process.

The Office of Civil Rights is a law enforcement agency and we investigate complaints. We also provide technical assistance on an informal basis. Readers who feel their state has violated Title II of the ADA can file a complaint with OCR. Again, we do not solicit complaints. A lot of times, just making that contact with state officials, advocacy groups can start the development of a comprehensive, effectively working state plan.
We have for many years considered 'most integrated setting' to be a high priority issue. We have all done work in that particular area. For at least as long as I have been with the agency -- about nine and a half years -- 'most integrated setting' cases have been at the forefront.

At right is a list of the OCR regional managers -- with their phone numbers:

Region I -- Caroline Chang617-565-1340

Region II -- Michael Carter212-264-3313
NJ, NY, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands

Region III -- Paul Cushing215-861-4441
DE, District of Columbia, MD, PA, VA, WV

Region IV -- (acting) Roosevelt Freeman404-562-7886

Region V -- Lisa Simeone312-886-2359

Region VI -- Ralph Rouse214-767-4056

Region VII -- John Halverson816-426-7278

Region VIII -- (acting) Velveta Howell303-844-2024

Region IX -- Ira Pollack415-437-8310
American Samoa, AZ, CA, Guam, HI, NV

Region X -- Carmen P. Rockwell206-615-2287

What does OCR mean by "Olmstead implementation?

OCR is making efforts to insure that states are complying with their ADA Title II responsibilities as regards institutionalized people with disabilities. Under the ADA, states are obligated to provide nondiscriminatory services to such persons, and, where appropriate, those services are to be provided in the most integrated setting. As a means of implementing Olmstead, OCR is conducting outreach to advocacy groups. My use of the term 'advocacy groups,' includes all advocacy groups that are located within a state.

How did you become acquainted with Mike Auberger and Joe Ehman of Atlantis?

Joe picked up the phone and called us.

The Office of Civil Rights, Region VIII, had just recently determined that Olmstead would be one of its priorities. Joe called, right around that time. It couldn't have been better timing. So he did call, and he requested a meeting, and we [including Vada Kyle-Holmes, former regional manager] were very happy to hear from him.
Vada asked me to go with her to the initial meeting at Atlantis. [Atlantis is a Center for Independent Living in Denver, and the original home of Adapt.] We met with Mike and Joe and Babs and had a good dialogue. At that first meeting, we talked about some things we might do together. We decided that training the Atlantis staff would be a good idea, and that we in OCR also could benefit from the knowledge that Atlantis/Adapt could pass along to us.
We provided training relating to OCR's enforcement jurisdiction, the processes we use in order to carry out our regulatory responsibilities, insuring compliance with various federal civil rights laws and training on Olmstead.
Mike Auberger provided us with training that included an overview of Adapt's dealings around the country in this area, and its plans for the future in terms of ensuring states' Olmstead compliance, ensuring that states met their obligations relative to institutionalized persons. He and Joe also gave us information about Atlantis, Adapt -- and their dealings with nursing home residents, the type of information that they are able to get from residents. They talked with us about their interviews with those residents to discover which ones are interested in moving into the community. It was a broad informational session, and it was great.

What comes next in the states?

After consulting with advocacy groups and contacting state officials, regional staffs are meeting with the states. During these meetings, we are making it very clear to states that all key players be represented in Olmstead-related discussions. In our view, when discussing Olmstead implementation, all stakeholders should be at the table.
We are going into states that have asked for and/or accepted our offers of assistance. So far in Region VII, our offers to provide states with technical assistance in implementing Olmstead have not been rejected. Both at the state level and on the advocacy and grassroots level, we've been welcomed in. We are sitting down with them to develop comprehensive, effectively working plans.
In this particular office, the focus is on those states where we have complaints. But we have also taken steps to assure that other states and their officials are well aware of Olmstead, that they know of our existence, that we are available to lend assistance.
Here in Region VIII, it's not just OCR and HCFA going in. We have a regional workgroup that is composed of Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA), OCR, the Administration for Children and Families, Administration on Aging, and Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The federal agencies are all working together on Olmstead implementation.
Currently, most of our regional OCR offices are working on Olmstead implementation.

Word has it that Donna Shalala is very committed to the Olmstead process.

Absolutely. She considers Olmstead a priority. She is a civil rights advocate. She always has been

We are developing a 'Questions and Answers' guide based upon the inquiries that we are getting.
The central office has been working on it now for a while. The last I heard was that it would be available 'relatively quickly' -- perhaps by mid-June of this year.
We will make every effort to get it as widely circulated as possible. One of the things that will probably happen is that it will be posted on OCR's and HCFA's websites, a very public document.

Right now a network of advocates -- Freedom Clearinghouse -- is working with HHS OCR to get Olmstead implemented. Click here to go to the Freedom Clearinghouse website.



Do you have something to SAY? Click here.

Steve Gold is another attorney who shepherded the precedent-setting Helen L. case through the courts. Read what he SAYS.