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Analysis: Mental health lawsuit was a long time coming

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS

When the U.S. Justice Department sued Mississippi last week over adult mental health services, it might as well have delivered the legal papers with a neon yellow sticky note saying: We told you this was coming.

The Justice Department has sued about a dozen states over the way they provide services for people with mental illnesses, and Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood says he has been talking to federal officials for several years to try to head off litigation in this state.

The federal suit says Mississippi has failed to provide community-based services that would enable people with mental illnesses to have meaningful interaction with friends and family and to make decisions about work and daily life.

“When individuals with mental illness get the services they need and the care they deserve, they can live and work in their own communities,” Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said in a proposed statement.

Gupta also said Mississippi has been forcing people with mental illness “to cycle in and out of state hospitals, emergency rooms and jails.”

Advocacy groups, including the nonprofit Families As Allies, have asked Mississippi legislators for years to put more money into community-based services that would help people maintain jobs and family ties while getting the help they need.

In a 2010 lawsuit that’s still pending, the Southern Poverty Law Center said Mississippi illegally sends mentally ill children to institutions instead of caring for them at home, violating the Medicaid Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. In December 2011, the Justice Department issued a report saying Mississippi was failing to provide appropriate services to people with mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The Department of Mental Health is on the long list of agencies receiving significantly less money than requested during recent years of faltering state revenues. Budgets will remain lean as the Republican-led Legislature continues pushing for tax cuts and smaller government.

Because of budget reductions for the year starting July 1, Department of Mental Health director Diana Mikula announced service cuts, including closure of a 29-bed acute medical psychiatric unit at the State Hospital at Whitfield.

Mikula’s announcement made her the target of a top budget writer, Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves.

“The Department of Mental Health is an agency that has done a lot of complaining to you all, and talked about shutting down beds,” Reeves said to reporters during a news conference in July. “But they’re doing that just a year after spending $1 million on office furniture.”

Adam Moore, the department’s spokesman, responded that Reeves’ assessment was inaccurate.

“The budget line item referred to is furniture and equipment, which includes a wide range of items, including mattresses for the people served in our programs,” Moore said. “It also includes wheelchairs and furniture for cottages as we transition people who have an intellectual and/or developmental disability to a less restrictive environment.”

As attorney general, Hood doesn’t help write the state budget. But, as the lone Democrat in statewide office, he has often said Republicans have the wrong priorities.

“Unfortunately, the Legislature this year chose to put money toward big corporate tax cuts rather than meet the needs of those among us who most need our assistance,” Hood said after mental health lawsuit was filed.

Hood hasn’t ruled out running for governor in 2019, and with Republican Gov. Phil Bryant limited to two terms, Reeves is gearing up for that race. The battle over mental health funding might provide a preview of the ideological and rhetorical divide voters can expect in the campaign.

» Emily Wagster Pettus covers Capitol matters for the Mississippi Associated Press in Jackson.

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