03/07/08 — Eastpointe director says state mental health system 'on right track'

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Eastpointe director says state mental health system 'on right track'

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 7, 2008 1:54 PM

Amidst all of the focus on mental health reforms and Gov. Mike Easley's proposed adjustments Tuesday, Eastpointe Director Ken Jones said that overall, he thinks the new secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services has the mental health system on the right track.

"The new secretary has really got his thumb on the pulse of what's going on," Jones said. "He knows there are some changes that have to be made. His priorities are developing good crisis services and more substance abuse services."

Secretary Dempsey Benton was hired in September after former Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom resigned to take a private sector position after overseeing the controversial implementation of the 2001 mental health reforms.

Since his hire, Benton has been working an independent consultant to review the agency, and on Tuesday, he and Easley began addressing some of the issues mentioned by Jones.

Among those was a request of the state General Assembly for at least $40 million for the expansion of mobile crisis teams across the state.

Also addressed in that $40 million was the downsizing of the state mental institutions and the need to expand the ability of local hospitals to handle acute psychiatric patients for periods of less than seven days.

Both are issues that Jones has long believed need to be addressed.

But there have been other recent changes in the system, most notably the retirement of long-time Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services Director Mike Mosley.

Fortunately, Jones said that he's confident his replacements -- co-directors Leza Wainwright, who is overseeing the administrative services, and Michael Lancaster, who is overseeing the clinical services -- can step up and fill his shoes.

"Both of them are very bright, competent individuals," Jones said. "And I think they will need to be open-minded to the new direction of the secretary."

He hopes it will be a long and fruitful relationship.

"He's gotten his feet wet real quick and I'd hate to see him leave at this point (after the new governor is elected in November). This secretary has learned a lot in a short amount of time. I'd say if he's in for the long haul, he can make some good changes to the system."

But for now, Jones will be watching closely the legislature's reaction to Easley's proposal Tuesday to reduce the number of LMEs, while putting the remainder under tighter state control.

"I think they are aware that the mental health system is very fragile," Jones said. "It's changing all the time and I don't think the system can withstand a lot more major change.

"I think the system right now is at a low point."

But he thinks it's beginning to improve.

"My hope is it will strengthen. We're at a point of trying to build the system back, but there's going to be some disruption," Jones acknowledged. "The system, four or five months ago, was out of control. The community support service was out of control. The secretary and the state had to get a handle on that service and they did."

They did so, he explained, by going through a post-payment review process and studying whether or not the providers were billing correctly for their services and charging re-payments from those that were not.

He explained that some of the problems were a matter of system abuse, some were misunderstandings in what was defined as community support, and some was poor management by state Medicaid manager Value Option.

And it's an issue that is still filtering out, even among Eastpointe providers -- though Jones added that he doesn't believe that local consumers should feel threatened, even if some providers end up shutting down.

"I don't want to scare people in the community. We're concerned, but we have a large network, and that's in our favor. We have providers willing to pick up caseloads," he said. "So comparatively speaking, if you look around the state, we're doing pretty well."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.