State investigation could bring policy uniformity to facilities

ATLANTA - A series of changes at state mental hospitals will likely follow a decision to send an "A-team" to an Atlanta facility, Human Resources Commissioner B.J. Walker said Monday.


Ms. Walker talked about the potential changes in a conference call held to announce the deployment of a team of state officials, including high-ranking staffers from the Department of Human Resources, to Georgia Regional Hospital-Atlanta. The facility is one of seven state-run hospitals that cares for severely mentally ill patients.

A volunteer advisory board and consultants from organizations and institutions such as the Medical College of Georgia will also help with the changes, Ms. Walker said. Dr. Peter Buckley will head the college's team.

The school is reviewing all seven hospitals, Ms. Walker said, though she and other DHR officials declined to say when that probe will be complete.

There are other investigations going on in the wake of a scathing series of reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this year pointing to suspicious deaths and other forms of alleged abuse at the facilities.

The U.S. Justice Department has launched a civil-rights investigation into patient treatment. Gov. Sonny Perdue issued an executive order last week creating a commission to examine the system after vetoing similar legislation from the General Assembly because it didn't allow for representatives from the executive branch to take part.

Changes made or lessons learned at the Atlanta hospital by the state team could be put to use at other institutions across Georgia, Ms. Walker said.

"We intend to apply them as they become relevant," she said.

DHR deputy commissioner and chief operations officer Dave Statton will lead the state team.

The state is acting on some of the ideas proposed by the Medical College of Georgia as experts from the school go through each of the state hospitals.

Any immediate issues are being dealt with in short order, Ms. Walker said.

The MCG report is expected to cause more revamping of the system.

"I think that they will drive change within our hospitals as we look at what problems they cite," said Gwen Skinner, the director of the DHR division charged with overseeing the hospitals.

Officials said the agency is already trying to make hospitals focus more on following state policies and recently rewritten treatment guidelines dealing with issues such as restraining patients and the use of seclusion or isolation.

"We just have to make sure that years of each hospital doing things their own way (turns into) consistent practice," Ms. Walker said.

The state is also hammering out deals with local, private hospitals near the state facilities so overcrowding can be avoided.

No price has been determined for the Atlanta effort, Ms. Walker said, adding, "We can't afford not to do this."

At least one advocate said that although the steps recently taken by the state are positive, they don't get at the root of the problem. Nora Haynes, the president of the Georgia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said many patients end up in state hospitals because they don't get better, less costly care in their own communities.

The state's recent actions, she said, are trying to put out a fire resulting from that.

"The fire should never have been there in the first place," she said.

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (678) 977-3709 or