Lincoln lawmakers take lead over mental health changes

Published 6:00 am Friday, January 23, 2009

A Brookhaven representative is preparing to lead a panel ofHouse lawmakers in a public hearing to review the operations of theMississippi Department of Mental Health, the state’s largestagency.

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, was authorizedWednesday to call the department’s chiefs before the House PublicHealth and Human Services Committee for an inquiry into thedepartment’s funding, expenditures, facilities, patient care andother operations.

“We’re all gonna be able to sit down and ask the executivedirector questions and try to get some answers – bring some thingsto light about what’s going on at the department of mental health,”she said.

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The hearing is tentatively scheduled for Monday, said HousePublic Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville,who authorized Currie’s action.

Currie has been inquiring about the department’s operationssince last summer, when the department was criticized in theLegislature’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review. ThePEER report accused the department of having no long-term goals forthe development of patient care and little accountabilityconcerning its expenditures relative to that care.

The report said the department expended approximately $2.5billion between 2003 and 2007, while receiving a revenue increaseof around $128 million over that same time span. The department isone of the nation’s biggest spenders on mental health services, thereport said, and has a per capita expenditure that is 152 percenthigher than other states in the South.

“It’s not been spent on patient care,” Currie said. “Thetaxpayers of Mississippi expect better than this.”

In response to the PEER report, Currie has two pieces oflegislation in the House that coincide with her public hearing.House Bill 27 would require the executive director of thedepartment of mental health to be a qualified psychiatrist withthree years’ experience, and House Bill 1343 would require thedepartment’s facilities directors to begin paying rent in theirstate-provided homes.

According to documents from the Department of Finance andAdministration provided by Currie, the department of mental healthspends more than $1 million per year to place at least 121personnel in state-provided housing, ranging from dorm rooms forsecurity personnel to four-bedroom houses for directors. The datais from 2006, Currie said, and could now equal more than $2 millionfor 144 homes.

“I want that money to go to the patients,” she said.

Currie’s distrust of the department’s management led to herbeing the only House member this week to vote against House Bill681, which would allow the department to transfer funds around itsbudget for the current fiscal year.

“We’re going to find out where all the money from the departmentof mental health is spent, where it’s wasted, and if they don’thave the money to finish out this year it’s because of badmanagement,” Currie said.

Currie’s own two bills are just the beginning of the reformattempts facing the department of mental health this session.

There are at least 10 bills pending in the House and Senate thatwould reform various aspects of the department, and many moredealing with minor adjustments for the department. Some are stillbeing crafted.

“We’ve got nine or 10 bills in the committee that deal witheverything from totally gutting and restructuring the department toputting educational requirements on its director,” Holland said.”It’s the whole gamut of mental health services.”

In the Senate, another local legislator is attempting to reformthe department of mental health as well.

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith has her own small collectionof mental health-related bills awaiting action. She was a member ofthe PEER committee on which much of the House and Senate bills arebased.

“The PEER report caused some serious concerns for me,” she said.”The most alarming thing is how much we pay per patient compared toother states. We’re leading the nation in costs, and I just thinkthat if the money was going to patient services instead of bricksand mortar, I would feel better about this agency.”

Hyde-Smith has authored Senate Bill 3096, an almost exactreplica of Currie’s bill calling for the department’s directors topay rent to the state for their homes, and Senate Bill 2075, whichcalls for the addition of non-voting member to the State Board ofMental Health who will represent community mental healthcenters.

The PEER report urged the department to turn more attentiontoward community mental health and shift away frominstitutionalized care. The PEER report found that the departmentspent roughly 55 percent of its funds on institutionalized care asopposed to 44 percent for community-based care in fiscal year2005.

Another concern of Hyde-Smith’s is the PEER report’s findingthat, in fiscal year 2007, the department spent approximately $357million of its $584 million in total expenditures on personnel.Only $29 million that year went to community mental healthservices.

“I think the agency is so large that, to address the issues ofliving within our means, the agency would have to be reduced,” shesaid.