05/13/07 — Mental health advocates pleased by legislators' attention to issue

View Archive

Mental health advocates pleased by legislators' attention to issue

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 13, 2007 2:01 AM

Despite facing a budget proposal more than $100 million short of what the state Department of Health and Human Services says it needs, and the state House Committee on Mental Health Reform just now getting around to looking at legislation for the first time this session, mental health professionals in Wayne County came away optimistic lst week after meeting with local legislators at Wilber's Barbecue.

"I felt that they were listening," said Ken Jones, director of Eastpointe, the local mental health management entity. "There are a lot of bills that have been introduced and I think there will be some changes this session.

"I think there has been enough chaos that our legislators are paying attention to mental health reform and I think it'll get some attention."

The breakfast meeting, which was attended by state Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, and Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, offered officials from Eastpointe, the O'Berry Center, Wayne Memorial Hospital, the Wayne County Mental Health Association and several private providers, the opportunity to weigh in about their concerns with mental health reform.

Topping the list, was the need for a year of stability in the system, which Jones said would rely in large part on the state allowing the local management entities -- Eastpointe in Wayne, Lenoir, Duplin and Sampson counties -- the authority and the funding flexibility to carry out their responsibilities.

"I feel the LMEs can be very helpful with the reform process," Jones said. "We've done everything that's been required in legislation (including combining counties, divesting of services and building the community provider network).

"This is the link between the state and the providers, and the state needs to continue to support the LMEs so we can help with the reform process."

Braxton, a member the House Mental Health Reform Committee, said he's disappointed, though, that they haven't done more to fix the reform process.

"I said I really wanted to be on the mental health reform committee, but I've been really disappointed. Mental health is not high on the priority list for a lot of legislators," he said. "Out of the three months we've been in session, I think we've met maybe three times. That's unfortunate because you need a committee that's going to stand up and advocate for mental health.

Still, he noted that there are several bills introduced this session that could provide the kind of help Jones and others are looking for.

Among those are ones that would clarify the role of the LMEs and give them more authority to conduct quality reviews, pull endorsements of private providers and participate in the development of individual care plans.

The committee began looking at that legislation Monday afternoon.

"I thought (the old) mental health system was working well," Braxton said. "(Reform) has been a train wreck, but if we're going to use LMEs, we need to give them the tools to do what we've asked them to do," he said. "We need to lessen the red tape and the paperwork."

He also said that with mental health reform moving away from state institutions -- something he personally disagreed with -- there needs to be better monitoring of private providers, especially those of the "mom and pop" variety.

"That's one of the biggest things we're dealing with right now. We have about 150 different companies providing services. That's way too many," Jones said. "The endorsement process needs to be tightened up."

Braxton also agreed with Jones that the private provider community needs time to develop more and better services before the department continues on its plan to cut back on the state institutions.

"We need to ensure there is the community capacity prior to closing more state beds," Jones said.

Perhaps most important, though, he continued, is the need for legislation allowing the LMEs the ability to spend their allotted money where they see fit.

"There is not enough money to fully support the LMEs, but funding is not the whole problem here," Jones said. "The problem is getting the money we have allocated to us. The LMEs are not going to pull down all the funds that were allocated to us last year because the criteria (to do so) is much too restrictive.

"I think this is a critical year for mental health. It's a year where we need some stability in the system.

"We need flexible funding and the ability to move dollars around to where we need to spend them the most. We need to be able to spend money where we need it to stabilize the system."