A bipartisan group of lawmakers is looking for answers after a top official at the federal agency responsible for community living reportedly said publicly that she favored “segregation” of people with disabilities.

Mary Lazare, who serves as principal deputy administrator for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Community Living, allegedly made the controversial remarks during a keynote address last week at the Autism Society’s national conference in Bethesda, Md.

Shortly thereafter, Lazare issued a statement on the Administration for Community Living’s Twitter page appearing to backtrack.

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“I regret & apologize for my words at #ASAconf18,” the statement read. “ACL believes ppl w/disabilities have the right & choice to live in the community. We work to expand those opptys & are 100% committed to that mission. We also recognize Olmstead gives people the right to other choices.”

Talking points prepared for Lazare’s appearance at the Autism Society conference that were provided to Disability Scoop by the Administration on Community Living do not make any mention of segregation, but the agency acknowledged that Lazare improvised. There are believed to be no recordings of the speech.

Lazare is also said to have expressed similar sentiments to those shared at the Autism Society conference during another appearance earlier the same day at the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities conference in Oxon Hill, Md.

The comments prompted four federal lawmakers to write to Lance Robertson who heads the Administration on Community Living, asking whether the agency remains committed to its mission which states that “all Americans — including people with disabilities and older adults — should be able to live at home with the supports they need, participating in communities that value their contributions.”

The lawmakers said they were told that Lazare said she believed the Supreme Court came to the wrong conclusion in the landmark Olmstead v. L.C. case, which affirmed the right of people with disabilities to access community-based living, and that she prefers segregated and institutional settings.

In addition, Lazare reportedly said she believed that a federal Medicaid rule outlining what types of settings qualify as community-based should be revisited, according to a letter from Reps. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., Gregg Harper, R-Miss., and Jim Langevin, D-R.I.

“As reported, your remarks were disturbing, create distrust and raise serious questions concerning your ability to effectively serve in your current position,” reads a separate letter from Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.

Even Lazare’s apology, the lawmakers noted, indicated a misunderstanding of the Olmstead decision.

Olmstead “has nothing to do with maintaining choice and everything to do with viewing the segregation of people with disabilities as a violation of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” wrote the three House lawmakers in their letter.

Kelly Mack, a spokeswoman for the Administration on Community Living, said she was unable to say specifically what prompted Lazare’s apology, but insisted that the agency’s commitment to its mission is unchanged.

“ACL absolutely agrees that the Supreme Court decision in the Olmstead case was about affirming the right of people with disabilities to be included and fully integrated in the community,” Mack told Disability Scoop. “Community living should be the expectation. That has always been ACL’s belief and it continues to be.”

Lazare was appointed to her post at the Administration on Community Living by President Donald Trump in June 2017.

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