05/10/07 — Leaders ask for new pick with local viewpoint

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Leaders ask for new pick with local viewpoint

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 10, 2007 1:46 PM

Meeting with local legislators Monday at Wilber's Barbecue, mental health professionals and advocates took advantage of the opportunity to stress to them that they are hoping the replacement for state Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom will be someone with experience on the community level.

Hooker Odom, who announced Friday that she is planning on stepping down from department's head position at the end of the current legislative session, was appointed secretary in 2001 by Gov. Mike Easley, and has overseen the extensive overhaul of the state's mental health system.

Mental health reform, though, has been a controversial process as state mental hospitals and other institutions have seen their numbers of beds reduced, and state mental health agencies have been forced to take on a management-only role, while farming their services out to private providers.

Replacing her, however, will be a tough job, legislators acknowledged -- especially since Easley has less than two years left in his term and hers is a political appointment.

"She was like a juggler trying to juggle about a dozen pinballs trying to keep it all from crashing to the ground and my opinion is that she's done a pretty good job," Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, said. "But her replacement is likely to be a lame duck."

Besides, they added, it's not the most attractive job right now.

"She's leaving at a critical time," said Amy Roux, director of the Wayne County Mental Health Association. "Her replacement is going to have a lot of work to do and I hope they come prepared."

But local mental health professionals are still holding out hope that an effective replacement can be found.

"I'm not sure there's an obvious person to take the reins," said Dr. Frank Farrell, director of the O'Berry Center, said. "I'd love to see somebody with a background in a local management entity.

"It's up to the governor, but I'd hate to see us bring in somebody new. It'd be better to bring in somebody with experience with reform."

The key, continued Ken Jones, director of local management entity Eastpointe, is to find somebody familiar with the problems the LMEs, the private providers and the consumers are having on the community level -- the need for tighter oversight of providers, the need for more flexibility in LME funding, the need for more and better community services and the need for better coordination of services.

"I see this as an opportunity for the state to select someone who is both fiscally aware and who understand the people we serve," Jones said. "And I think to have both, you have to get somebody with ground-level experience."

But, Farrell added, the bottom line is that whoever is tapped needs to be able to bring the process to a close.

"We're six years into this and we need to get it done," he said.