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Home Strong: A victory for Tony Otto

By KATE MOSTACCIO

A big smile broke out across Tony Otto’s face as his lawyer’s voice conveyed the news over the phone held to his ear — he had won his hearing and could stay in his home.

Otto, a 51-year-old quadriplegic man who has lived in OPWDD residential facilities for more than 25 years, was facing discharge from his current facility in Rome due to the state Office for People with Developmental Disabilities’ (OPWDD) assertion it was no longer able to provide him adequate nursing care.

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“He’s very happy,” said Barbara Destito, Otto’s mother. “It’s a relief for everybody. I know the state can object, but I hope they don’t. They should try harder to get nurses.”

The hearing officer, after testimony from four witnesses on behalf of OPWDD and four on behalf of Otto, sided with Otto and his family, stating in the decision: “I find it in Tony’s overall best interests to remain where he is, and which he considers his home, while OPWDD continues its efforts to hire additional staff.”

“His care is very good,” his mother said. “He should stay with familiar doctors in a hospital that knows him. A lot of the decision was about his social life. That’s a lot of what the hearing officer based it on, I believe.”

The hearing officer cited many of the same facts Otto’s family and PEF raised throughout the Home Strong campaign — his immersion in the local community, his ability to visit movie theaters, shopping centers, and family events and gatherings. All of which he would not be able to do if he was discharged and moved to a skilled nursing facility.

It was a welcome win for Otto and his family, said PEF Vice President Randi DiAntonio. “I’m very pleased that the hearing went well,” she said. “I think that it would have been a huge disservice and disruption to Tony’s life had the decision gone differently.

“The hearing officer’s decision really supported all the positions and arguments we put forward with Tony’s family,” DiAntonio said. “Clearly, the hearing officer heard what we were saying and agreed.”

While it was a victory for Otto, DiAntonio said there are others out there in the same situation. “I think that we have work to do to make sure that the public and families are aware that they have a right to have their loved ones taken care of in community settings with our incredible members, who do a great job, taking care of them,” she said. “We know this is happening all over the state and we need to hear from families and our members because this is wrong on so many levels and we have an obligation to make sure people are served in the settings of their choice. They deserve to lead the most meaningful lives that they can.”

Otto’s longtime friend and licensed social worker, Jodi Nettleton, is thrilled for Otto’s victory. “I am very pleased about the outcome of Tony’s appeal,” she said. “It represents OPWDD’s mission to support people with what they need in the setting they choose to live. Nursing home placement should not be part of the continuum of care for the people we support because we are not paying professionals enough to compete with the private sector.

“I think this is a good start but New York state really needs to look at the prevailing wages for nursing titles and address the disparity in salary so we can recruit and retain nursing supports across agencies in New York state,” Nettleton said.

DiAntonio agreed. “They not only need to hire people and recruit people but retain them by treating them well,” she said of OPWDD. “We know our nurses aren’t treated very well and they aren’t paid enough.”

Otto’s case has shed light on the problem but this is only the first step, Nettleton said. “There are many others in New York state like Tony who have no family to help support them who need a voice,” she said. “Tony’s family was critical in supporting him and shedding light on his situation. The community members and politicians of Rome came out to stand by his family at the rally. This is how we support people. I was so happy to see Tony’s smiling face in reaction to his hearing appeal. Stay Home Strong, Tony!”

PEF stands behind this issue, DiAntonio said. “The union really cares about this issue,” she said. “Cares about our members and about the people they serve.”

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