Three disabled Arkansans obtain historic settlement and program improvements in lawsuit against DHS officials.
Three Arkansans enrolled in the ARChoices Medicaid program recently settled a long-running lawsuit against several officials at the Arkansas Department of Human Services for alleged violations of their constitutional rights to due process. The settlement is historic in its scope of relief. The $460,000 received provides compensation for the three clients as well as attorney’s fees and costs expended by Legal Aid in prosecuting the lawsuit. The agreement also requires DHS to improve the ARChoices program for all the roughly 11,000 people enrolled in it.
The three plaintiffs are disabled and had for several years received in-home care services through the ARChoices program. The care involved daily activities like bathing, getting out of bed, using the bathroom, cooking, and going to medical appointments. This support helped the plaintiffs stay in their homes instead of entering a nursing facility.
In 2019, after DHS implemented a new system for determining eligibility for ARChoices, the agency terminated one plaintiff from the program entirely and cut the other two plaintiffs’ care by roughly 30% even though their medical conditions had not improved. Under the U.S. Constitution’s due process clause, people who face benefit cuts have the option to appeal the decision and keep their benefits in place while the appeal is pending. Although all three plaintiffs appealed immediately and asked to keep their benefits in place, DHS nevertheless implemented the cuts. For several months, the three plaintiffs went without needed care, forcing them, among other things, to skip bathing, skip meals, fall while trying to do things on their own, and miss vital medical treatment.
Between 2016 and 2019, Legal Aid of Arkansas informed DHS at least 18 times that the agency routinely failed to keep benefits in place when ARChoices recipients appealed. The agency never fixed the recurring problem, ultimately leading to this lawsuit.
Under federal law, state governments are immune from financial liability except in narrow situations not applicable here. However, state officials possess only qualified immunity and can be individually liable for money damages if they violate clearly established constitutional rights. In December 2022, the federal Eight Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 3-0 decision that the plaintiffs overcame the officials’ qualified immunity and that the suit could move forward. That decision led to the settlement.
The three plaintiffs plan to use the money for basic items to make their daily lives better: medical beds that are easier to get in and out of, functioning motorized wheelchairs made for their bodies, and vehicles with modifications to help them get around.
The settlement also requires DHS to update its appeal procedures so that the problem does not recur, train staff, provide regular reports to Legal Aid, change its notices to recipients, extend the time recipients can file appeals and keep receiving benefits, and meet quarterly with Legal Aid.
Plaintiff Bob Taylor of Fayetteville stated, “Everything turned out right and justice prevailed.” He noted that the cuts were not necessarily the fault of DHS’s frontline nurses, emphasizing, “It was the state’s policy and the people who made that policy that were wrong.”
Plaintiff Jacquelyn Dearmore of Yellville stated, “I’m so thrilled. It means a lot to find out that other people who need help are going to get it.” She added that the people responsible for the cuts “should have to be in our shoes.”
“We are so happy that our clients will finally get some relief for all they suffered,” said Legal Aid’s Director of Advocacy, Kevin De Liban. He continued, “Their courage in bringing this case and sticking with it for several years will make things better for so many other people. We trust that DHS will take the lessons from this case to heart and work with Legal Aid and our client communities to make the state’s Medicaid programs better for everyone.”
Trevor Hawkins, Legal Aid’s Economic Justice workgroup leader, added “I am thankful that our clients have finally received some long-overdue relief for the harm they suffered. I also hope the negotiated program changes prevent others from experiencing the same unexpected interruption in vital Medicaid benefits.”
About Legal Aid of Arkansas
Legal Aid of Arkansas is a non-profit law firm that provides free legal services to low-income Arkansans in civil legal matters. The clients will keep all the money they receive. The fees Legal Aid receives from the settlement will be used to serve low-income Arkansans. No Legal Aid attorneys will receive any financial gain from the settlement.
To apply for assistance with Legal Aid or for more information, call (800) 952-9243 or visit ARLegalAid.org. For press inquiries, please contact Kevin De Liban at (870) 972-9224 x. 2206.