Originally created 01/25/02

Lawmakers will revisit debate on mental health boards' future



ATLANTA - For the second year in a row, legislative leaders from both parties are determined to find a way to improve the delivery of tax-paid services to Georgia's mentally ill, mentally retarded and substance-abusing residents.

The House passed a bill last year aimed at making the system more financially accountable by shifting most of the functions performed by regional boards to the state Department of Human Resources.

The compromise measure would allow regional boards to keep their planning responsibilities. Mental-health advocates lobbied hard against eliminating the boards entirely because they give patients' families a say in the system.

Despite widespread support for the compromise, the bill died in the Senate.

In recent weeks, however, the bill has been the subject of high-level discussions involving Gov. Roy Barnes, House Speaker Tom Murphy - the bill's sponsor - and Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, who presides over the Senate.

"I hope (the Senate) will do something with it and send it to a (House-Senate) conference (committee) where we can work something out," said Mr. Murphy, DBremen.

"It's on our radar screen," said David Sutton, Mr. Taylor's spokesman. "The lieutenant governor is very interested in the legislation."

The bill would overhaul a system established in a 1993 law that decentralized the planning and coordination of mental-health services by creating 13 regional boards. The regional boards provide those services through contracts with community service boards.

As introduced by Mr. Murphy, the legislation calls for getting rid of the boards. The speaker and other critics have blamed the boards for a host of abuses in various parts of the state, including fraud, financial mismanagement and ignoring complaints from patients' relatives.

For example, The Southeast Coastal Regional Board yanked a major service contract two years ago from Savannah-based Tidelands, which was losing $40,000 a week. Tidelands subsequently folded, and a community service board from Brunswick expanded its coverage area to include Chatham and Effingham counties.

Nine employees of a community service board in Elberton were fired in 1998 after a state investigation into allegations that some were listed as beneficiaries of 20 mentally disabled patients' life insurance policies.

Besides such lapses in oversight, opponents of regional boards also see them as a costly and unnecessary barrier between the state agency in Atlanta and community service boards.

"They are draining money from the providers and the people who need these services," Mr. Murphy said. "They don't do anything to help the people who need help."

"As the regions have gotten larger and larger, the regional boards have become another layer of bureaucracy," added Senate Republican leader Eric Johnson, of Savannah. "We need to revisit them."

Although they fought hard last year to save the regional boards, mental-health advocates are not locked in to any particular way of structuring the system, said Grace Fricks, the statewide coordinator of Georgia's Unlock the Waiting Lists! Campaign. But any changes lawmakers are contemplating must allow for local planning and focus on the needs of patients and their families, she said.

"As long as that's there, it can take any configuration," she said.

Jim Martin, a former House member who now heads the Department of Human Resources, said some form of the compromise incorporated into the House bill probably will be the final outcome of this year's debate.

"We've had a lot of good discussions about preserving the benefits of the existing system and making improvements where needed," he said. "Accountability is what everyone wants."