05/10/05 — Mental health workers seek support for programs

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Mental health workers seek support for programs

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on May 10, 2005 1:47 PM

Mental health workers told lawmakers Monday the community needs help from the Legislature to prepare to take on a larger portion of the burden for caring for people with mental illnesses.

"The state needs to give counties more flexibility with funds," said Dr. Jack St. Clair, the director of Eastpointe, which provides services for people with mental health and substance abuse problems and developmental disabilities in Wayne, Duplin, Sampson and Lenoir counties.

St. Clair's remarks came at legislative breakfast attended by state Reps. Louis Pate and Stephen LaRoque and state Sen. John Kerr.

New state mental health laws will change the way the state helps with the treatment of disabled and mentally ill people. More patients will have to depend on community-based resources and less on institutionalized care. State law requires the local agencies to stop providing direct services by 2007.

The new law might look like a good idea on paper, St. Clair said, but there are many questions that remain about how the new system will perform.

"The intent of the system reform is that local agencies provide services to those with greatest need, but there's a disconnect with the state's priorities," St. Clair said. "It doesn't fit with the needs back home."

St. Clair said he hoped the legislators would slow down the transition.

He said there is a shortage of manpower in the private sector to serve the developmentally disabled, the addicted and the mentally ill.

"We need time to create other options locally," St. Clair said. "We don't need to move faster until we can develop community capacity to treat people."

LaRoque said his business background makes him believe in "bottom up" budgeting.

"Here we feed it down, and maybe we need to start at the bottom and pass it up," LaRoque said. "Then we know what you need, instead of what we think you need."

Pate suggested mental health organizations might need to be funded the same way as universities.

"That might give you some flexibility to move the money around when you needed to," he said.

Bobby Jones, the head of the mental health association, said he is concerned there are no collaborative efforts regarding implementing the new laws, and that some services could fall by the wayside.

"Take off the blinders and don't pass the buck," Jones said.

Pate said everyone involved wants to see the most vulnerable citizens receive the proper care, and that there might need to be more effort to involve faith-based groups in the process.

Pate also said he would prefer to see the budget process conducted differently, and that the House had tried to pass a budget act last year to realign the process, but it wasn't approved by the Senate.

"Right now the budget all comes together like an ink blot," Pate said. "And there's a lot that goes on behind closed doors."

Pate, a Republican, said he wasn't trying to criticize any particular party because he thinks both parties are equally responsible for developing a budget.

But Kerr, a Democrat, took exception to Pate's remarks, saying it "sounds like criticism to me."

Kerr said government was not an industry, and that much of the money the state receives from Washington has "strings attached to it."

Kerr said he thinks the new mental health laws are ill-conceived, and that counties would have to work together to make the new system work.

"The guy from Michigan that recommended this system left here pretty quick, I noticed," Kerr said.