07/17/05 — Mental health advocates worried

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Mental health advocates worried

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on July 17, 2005 2:03 AM

Mental health advocates in Wayne County said Thursday they are worried some people in need of help are being forgotten because of the state's new mental health reform laws.

"This is a pretty wild time with reforms," said Bobby Jones, president of the county's Mental Health Association. "We've got to take a stronger role in advocacy because people are falling through the cracks."

Jones made his comments Thursday during the association's monthly board of directors meeting. The association is made up of a group of local volunteers from both the business sector and mental health profession.

New state mental health laws are changing the treatment of disabled and mentally ill people by using more community-based resources and less institutionalized care.

State law requires local agencies to stop providing direct services by 2007.

Board member Jim Slowinski prompted Thursday's discussion, saying he had heard the changes weren't going well.

Gaspar Gonzalez agreed, saying he thought it was still "a little on the shaky side."

Mike Herring, a clinical social worker, said that the new laws are sometimes so specific that people who need help don't meet guidelines for inclusion.

"For example, a male substance abuser may not qualify for a program unless he has another disorder," Herring said.

Another problem that is surfacing is finding qualified private providers, association members said.

"For one thing, they're not used to the mountains of paperwork required by the government," Herring said. "There are only a few in the area that can handle this."

Jones said that there are serious challenges regarding how the money was dispersed.

The state refers to the various pots of money as 'silos,' Jones said.

"And there's a problem if the mental health condition falls outside the silo or if there are too many people going for the same money."

He said there is too little flexibility in how money is distributed.

"I know these measures were taken to fix the system, but I don't know if it's the right measures," Jones said.

A Supreme Court decision in 2001 ordered that disabled people be placed in community settings, rather than institutions, where possible.

After the ruling, President Bush formed the Freedom Commission to eliminate inequality for Americans with disabilities. From June 2002 to April 2003, the 22 commissioners met monthly to analyze the public and private mental health systems. The commission received comments and suggestions from nearly 2,500 people from all 50 states.

The commission then came up with a list of items that needed to be changed in the mental health and disability areas. They included: Integrating Americans with disabilities into the workforce, expanding telecommuting, implementing a 'ticket to work' program where disabled people can choose their own support services and maintain their health benefits when they return to work, providing innovative transportation solutions and promoting full access to community life.

The commission's report prompted the President to issue an executive order, which was passed on to the states. Any mental health funding from the federal government would be looked upon in relation to the Freedom Commission's report.

Those dictates prompted the North Carolina General Assembly to develop a plan for mental health system reform.

The programs should now become more "person centered," and programs will be developed to keep mentally ill or disabled people in their community.

"When they talk target populations, that means little to no money to me," Jones said.