Governor Phil Bryant blasts slow progress on mental health reform

Published 10:27 am Monday, May 15, 2017

By Larrison Campbell

Mississippi Today

Gov. Phil Bryant criticized the Department of Mental Health on Friday, suggesting the agency’s priorities are outdated and calling on the department to shift funding from institutions towards community-based care.

Email newsletter signup

Bryant’s remarks echo a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit filed in September  2016 demanding the Department of Mental Health transition many of its resources from institutions to home care.

Bryant said the Department of Mental Health has not acted quickly enough to address these concerns.

“I am absolutely stunned that the Department of Mental Health continues to support their institutions. In the 1990s they built several of these across the state because that was the standard of care,” Bryant said. “But they’re reinforcing old continuums of mental health care. We’re being sued by the federal government. We should be putting more (resources) into community-based care.”

Bryant’s comments followed his speech at the Fourth Annual Children’s Mental Health Summit in Jackson, where he repeatedly emphasized the benefits of community-based care, which allows patients to receive high-level services from mental health providers while living at home.

“(The Department of Mental Health and) I agree that we need to work harder to make sure our children have home and community-based services, that they can continue to go to school to play with their friends and in their neighborhoods and go with the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts, they can be on the cheerleading team or in the band or on the football team and still receive treatment,” Bryant said. “The idea that we’re going to continue to take children and place them in institutions somewhere for an extended period of time is something that we’ve got to get past.”

“Difficult times”

The Department of Mental Health received criticism from the public and elected officials when it confirmed last month that they had frozen their waiting list for intellectual and developmental disability waivers, which allow residents to receive services at home. Eighty-four Mississippians who were being enrolled in the program received letters in April returning them to the waiting list, which currently has an average wait time of eight years.

But the Department of Mental Health said the agency is struggling to close a $19.7 million budget hole, the result of a $14.4 million budget cut and another $5.3 million in increased costs.

“When DMH receives budget reductions, the only focus is on how to impact the least number of people receiving services in the least negative way,” said Adam Moore of the Department of Mental Health. “…These are difficult times and there are many things we hope to be able to fund in the future that is just not possible at this time.”

Moore said the department has still made strides to reduce its reliance on institutional care, cutting 500 beds from Mississippi State Hospital and East Mississippi State Hospital in the last 10 years. He said that part of the Department of Mental Health’s plans for the next fiscal year is closing of institutional beds for children, reducing the number from 110 to 60.

“DMH’s focus has been on building up direct services in the community to ensure capacity is available to reduce the reliance on inpatient institutional services,” Moore said.

This year’s Children’s Mental Health Summit, which Canopy Children’s Solutions sponsored and was subtitled “Changing the Conversation.” This, according to Canopy CEO John Damon, refers to the strides that the state has made in taking care of its children since the first summit in 2014.

“This has been the most incredible movement, in the last three years, that we’ve ever seen,” Damon said, during his introduction of Bryant. “We’re in a completely different spot with child welfare because we’ve made this a priority in our state.”

In particular, Damon and Bryant heaped praise on the newly formed Department of Child Protection Services, which the Legislature spun off from the Department of Human Services in 2015, making it a standalone agency and substantially increasing its budget.

This dramatic reorganization was part of the state’s attempt to comply with a 2004 lawsuit, in which the Justice Department alleged that Mississippi’s foster care system continually neglected the children in its custody.

In his speech, Bryant frequently drew parallels between the longstanding issues within the foster care system and the issues now being experienced by the Department of Mental Health, which, in addition to its lawsuit, announced last month that it would cut 650 jobs by June 30, 2018 in its ongoing battle to reconcile a $19.7 million hole in its budget.

Citing the statistic that 254 children in the foster care system had been adopted in the last year, Bryant said, “This is a remarkable number. This is unbelievable work.” And he praised Commissioner David Chandler, who received an award for his work with the agency from the National Council for Adoption on Monday.

Bryant described the decision to turn Child Protection Services into a standalone agency as a “tipping point” for childcare in the state and repeatedly emphasized the need for the other agencies that serve children, such as the departments of Health and Mental Health, to better coordinate their efforts, potentially through a cabinet department that would oversee all child services.

“I may not be able to formally establish the governor’s children’s cabinet … I haven’t given up on that. But I can help through coordination, and we’re going to do that,” Bryant said.

Power struggles

This is not the first time the Governor has mentioned taking the reins of these agencies.

Senate Bill 2567, which was introduced in January, would have given the governor control of the Departments of Health, Mental Health and Rehabilitation Services, allowing him to appoint and remove the heads of each agency. Traditionally these agencies have been governed by their boards.

After public outcry, however, the Departments of Health and Rehabilitation Services were dropped from the bill. It still died in the Senate by a vote of 24-27 in February.

On Friday, Bryant praised the Department of Health, calling the agency and its public health officer, Dr. Mary Currier, “remarkable.”

But his frustration with the Department of Mental Health was palpable, at one point he questioned whether the agency had cut the budget for Families as Allies because of the non-profit’s relationship with him.

“The Department of Mental Health said ‘our budget has been reduced, so therefore we’re going to reduce the budget of Families as Allies,’” Bryant said. “I hope it’s not because I met with Families as Allies and somehow they’re being held accountable for meeting with the governor (while) the governor was in conflict with the management of the Department of Mental Health.”

Moore responded by saying: “DMH values its relationship with the Governor and will continue to work with him and his staff to help implement the department’s vision of a better tomorrow for all Mississippians.”