Sunday, June 30, 2002
By Dave Williams Times-Union staff writer ATLANTA -- State officials are banking that the second overhaul of Georgia's mental-health services in less than a decade will restore accountability to a system plagued by neglect, mismanagement and fraud.
But advocates for the mentally ill, mentally retarded and developmentally disabled are worried that the restructuring to take effect tomorrow will reduce the role families gained from the first reform eight years ago.
"Family members at least have had an opportunity to state their case and have an impact,'' said Beth Tumlin, chairman of Georgia's Unlock the Waiting Lists! campaign and mother of an adult daughter with cerebral palsy.
Breakdown of responsibilities Here is a breakdown of responsibilities in Georgia's mental-health services delivery system under a state law that takes effect tomorrow: Administration: Georgia Department of Human Resources Planning: Seven regional boards Service delivery: Local providers, overseen by community-service boards
"Now we're about to go through another upheaval in the system that runs the program our kids are in.''
Under a bill passed this year by the General Assembly, the administrative functions now performed by 13 regional mental-health boards will shift to the state Department of Human Resources.
While the boards will keep their planning responsibilities, they will be reduced in number to seven, to correspond with the seven state mental hospitals.
Their plans will advise the state's paid administrator in each area, who will be in charge of each hospital and oversee the region's institutional- and community-based mental-health services. But the administrator will answer to the department rather than the volunteers and family members on the boards. The regional boards were created by the legislature in 1993 to make it easier for patients and their families to air complaints and take part in decisions.
But a series of problems with the way some of the regional boards were handling their service-delivery duties led to dissatisfaction with the system among lawmakers. The Southeast Coastal Regional Board, for example, was criticized for failing to properly oversee Tidelands, a Savannah-based provider that folded in 2000 amid a sea of red ink. Nine employees of a community-service provider in Elberton were fired in 1998 after a state investigation into allegations that some were listed as beneficiaries on 20 mentally disabled patients' life insurance policies.
House Speaker Tom Murphy, D-Bremen, seized on the issue last year after a regional board in his home county cut funding for a program he had helped start.
The original version of the bill, which Murphy introduced last year, called for eliminating regional boards entirely.
But he was convinced to compromise after an onslaught from mental-health advocates to save the regional boards. Human Resources Commissioner Jim Martin said what has emerged is a law that will both ensure the accountability the system's critics are demanding and maintain the families' lines of communication. "It really was a win for both sides,'' he said.
But Hunter Hurst won't be convinced until he sees the results. Hurst, who served as co-chairman of a task force on community-based services formed by Gov. Roy Barnes two years ago, runs a program providing long-term care services for St. Joseph's/Candler Health System in Savannah.
"To the extent this helps make the system more accountable, that's good,'' he said. "If it doesn't, it'll be just another organizational shuffle. [But] whatever we do needs to be focused on the outcomes we get when we spend public dollars.''