By Debra Jasper
and Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau
COLUMBUS - The Ohio auditor, attorney general, governor and a growing number of state legislators say it's time to crack down on private companies whose workers abuse, neglect or rob the mentally retarded.
In the wake of a Cincinnati Enquirer investigation that revealed most counties don't know if the agencies they hire do good jobs, candidates for three major state offices have promised tough new reforms are coming.
Attorney general candidates Jim Petro and Leigh Herington say that, if elected, they will work aggressively to ensure that all Ohio counties beef up their contracts with the private companies they hire to care for the mentally retarded.
"In every agency where private contractors are doing government work, there needs to be standards we can measure," said Mr. Petro, a Republican who is now state auditor. He added: "Someone needs . . . to say we've got to get better performance contracts so counties can stop internal conflicts and other problems."
Mr. Herington, a Democratic state senator, said such changes should already be in place. If elected, he said, he'd implement them.
"Organizations that are substantially funded by state dollars should have the same kind of accountability as state agencies," he said. "We have a situation now where some organizations are taking advantage of the fact that there isn't enough state oversight."
Mr. Petro said he would work to create uniform state contracts for counties that include, among other things, a clause that requires troubled private companies to be audited by the state.
Both candidates and other state officials say they focused on the problem after the Enquirer ran a three-part series this year that revealed Ohio's mental retardation system routinely fails to prevent deaths, abuse and neglect.
The series also found that 77 of Ohio's 88 county mental retardation boards failed to make sure the companies they hired to care for people actually took them to the doctor or gave them their medicine. Fifty-three counties failed to report or investigate abuse neglect and other serious incidents in private homes as required by law.
State Sen. Jeff Jacobson, R-Butler Twp., said he has drafted a letter to the state auditor's office asking for audits of private mental retardation agencies. He is asking fellow lawmakers to sign the letter and said he plans to send it next week.
"I would like to think we are doing a good job but any confidence I had was shaken by the revelations in the series," Mr. Jacobson said.
In 1999, Mr. Jacobson and 13 other legislators sent a similar letter asking the state to audit private foster care agencies. Auditor Petro complied.
To date, his office has issued findings against 15 foster care agencies for spending a combined $9.4 million in tax money meant for foster children on everything from a Mercedes-Benz roadster to plastic surgery, jet fuel, tanning bed visits and quarter horses.
The Ohio Association of Child Caring Agencies, which represents foster care agencies, responded with a lawsuit that argues the state has no business auditing private agencies. Foster care agencies - even though many are funded 100 percent with tax money - argue they are private vendors and can spend tax dollars how they see fit.
Helen Knipe Smith, a Democratic candidate for state auditor, said she favors auditing private companies that collect tax dollars to provide care for the mentally retarded.
"If they are getting tax money, we should be looking at how they are spending their dollars," she said.
Attorney General Betty Montgomery, a Republican who is also running for state auditor, said the next attorney general and auditor should work together to make sure private vendors are spending tax dollars properly.
"Either through contracting, through statute or through existing laws and the auditing processes, you will see us focusing very closely on whether these dollars are legally and appropriately spent," she said.
Republican Gov. Bob Taft and his opponent, Democratic candidate Tim Hagan, weighed in last week.
"The inefficiencies in the contracts that are not being scrutinized is outrageous. People are being exploited by people who are looking for a fast buck," Mr. Hagan said.
"It's not the government's responsibility to make sure these private companies stay in business. It's our job to make sure people who need care get good care."
Joe Andrews, spokesperson for Mr. Taft, said the governor "doesn't have a problem" with the candidates' plans to beef up oversight.
"In concept we support it. Obviously, the governor wants to see state money well spent," he said.
Officials at the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation had a similar response. "We're not familiar with these proposals," said Robert Jennings, the agency spokesman. "We certainly would be open to any policies that would make our system better."
The question now is how counties and groups representing private companies would react to the proposals.
Maureen Corcoran, director of the Ohio Provider Resource Association, which lobbies on behalf of private agencies that provide care for the mentally retarded, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Earlier this year, the Provider Resource Association and the Ohio nursing home lobby successfully opposed reform proposals that would have let the Department of Health fine poorly run nursing homes for the mentally retarded. Another proposal would have given mental retardation officials broader powers to keep bad homes from taking in new residents.
Charlie Arndt, director of the Ohio Association of County Boards of Mental Retardation, was supportive of the proposed contract reforms. His group lobbies on behalf of Ohio's 88 county mental retardation boards.
"We need some standardization, clearly in relation to how contracts are done," Mr. Arndt said.
State officials are debating what standards all county boards should use in their contracts.
Mr. Petro said he's impressed with the way Hamilton County oversees private companies. The county tracks the mistakes each company makes and shares the information with families looking for care for their loved ones.
Cheryl Phipps, the director of the Hamilton County Board of Mental Retardation, said her agency recently adopted tougher restrictions for companies. The county board now has the power to terminate contracts if board members determine a company isn't trying to fix problems found by inspectors during scheduled visits.
The county has yet to use this new power, described by Ms. Phipps as a method of last resort. She said she also supports the tougher standards being discussed by the candidates.
"I think that's wonderful," she said. "It always seemed to me that if a company is dependent on state funding 100 percent it should be just as accountable as a government agency."
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