03/17/08 — Legislative wary of fix for mental health care

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Legislative wary of fix for mental health care

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on March 17, 2008 1:45 PM

Local legislators are approaching Gov. Mike Easley's recent proposals to fix the state's mental health system with a healthy dose of skepticism.

While acknowledging that something needs to be done to help stabilize a system that has been reeling since reforms were implemented in 2001, several not only questioned Easley's plan, but also whether it would even come up for discussion during the short session that begins in May.

They also questioned the governor's recent actions and comments as he has tried to deny ever supporting the legislation, which he signed during his first year in office.

"I think this situation shows poor leadership," said state Sen. Fred Smith, R-Johnston. "If he wasn't excited about it, he should have vetoed it."

Smith is running in the Republican primary for the chance to replace Easley.

He also questioned why it took the governor seven years to come forward with a proposal for changing the direction of the reforms.

"Another mistake Easley made was saying he's going to fix this before he leaves office," Smith said. "This is a big problem that's going to take years to fix."

And, he added, that's not going to happen through Easley's solution of taking power away from the local management entities and their governing boards and putting it in the hands of the governor's office and the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

"I think we've got to clarify what the state's role is, and what the localities, private providers and local managements' roles are," Smith said.

State Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, a member of the legislative Mental Health Oversight Committee, also said he was wary of moving back toward a more a centralized state-controlled system. Braxton will be running for re-election in November.

"The legislature should hold DHHS accountable; DHHS should hold the LMEs accountable; and they should hold private providers accountable," he said. "But I would question giving the power back to the governor and the secretary. The old system's been dismantled too far. We have to make what we have work.

"But I would caution us to go slow. When we did reform, we went too fast, too furious and made changes we just hoped would work. Now it's going to take some time, and it's counterproductive to play the blame game. There are a lot of pieces to mental health."

But there was one piece of the governor's plan that most did agree was immediately necessary -- the expansion of the mobile crisis team program and the need for local hospitals to increase their psychiatric capacities.

Though some are wondering where the money will come from given the amount of waste in the mental health system so far.

Fortunately, said retiring state Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, all the turmoil surrounding the system, including the delays at the new Central Regional Hospital in Butner, are not affecting the plans for the new Eastern Regional Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro.

"Most of my efforts will be on keeping Cherry Hospital, and it's OK right now," he said, noting that $150 million has been set aside for the project.

But for now, added state Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, something has to be done "to stop the bleeding."

The first step -- recouping money paid to private providers found to be not giving proper care -- is already underway. The second is improving the emergency response. Anything beyond that, Pate said, may take a while.

"Long term, I think we need to go back and look at the entire mental health issue," he said.

Pate will be running for Kerr's Senate seat in November.

However, Kerr said he doesn't think any sort of major mental health changes will be made this year anyway.

"It's a tough issue, and we're going to do the best we can," he said. "If the governor has a good plan I'm sure we'll look at it, but this is the short session."

The purpose of the short session is to approve the continuation of the two-year budget. And even though they can consider bills related to study commissions established during the long session, they're not likely to take up drastically new legislation, especially not with members on the campaign trail.

Besides, added Braxton, his committee will be coming forward with its own proposals -- ones they've been working on since the legislative session ended last summer.

"We will come forward with our report to the General Assembly," he said. "Just because the governor came in at the 11th hour with his changes doesn't mean I'm necessarily going to go for them. We've been working on our own recommendations."