Ga. social services agency to get makeover

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ATLANTA - Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue on Tuesday announced plans to shake up the state bureaucracy that oversees health and social services programs, creating a new agency to take the helm of Georgia's troubled mental health system.

At a state Capitol news conference, Perdue endorsed the findings of a task force he appointed in February. It called for social services and health programs now spread across two state agencies to be reshuffled among three, including a new Department of Behavioral Health to handle mental health and addictive disease programs.

The state's mental health system has been under fire and is facing scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice. Recent reports in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution uncovered suspicious deaths and confirmed cases of patient abuse. The Justice Department has demanded improvements to dangerous conditions at the state mental hospital in Atlanta.

"We believe this will improve our responsiveness to the mental health needs in our state and make mental health funding more transparent," Perdue said Tuesday.

What the overhaul will mean for mental health funding is unclear. Mental health services - like much of state government in Georgia - are being targeted for budgets cuts amid slowing revenues. Perdue said Tuesday that the funding issues will be hashed out in the coming months.

Advocates have argued that mental health care in Georgia will not improve without an infusion of additional cash.

Perdue's plan would require approval from the state Legislature.

It essentially guts the state Department of Human Resources, a massive agency with 19,000 employees and a budget of $3.8 billion in federal and state dollars. Perdue said the state's needs and demographics have changed dramatically since the department was created by then-Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter 35 years ago.

Under the overhaul, a new state Department of Health would take over the responsibilities of the current Department of Community Health. The new agency would also absorb public health and regulatory responsibilities that now fall under the state Department of Human Resources.

DHR would be renamed the Department of Human Services and would continue to manage a smaller portfolio made up of child welfare programs as well as services for the developmentally disabled and the aging.

Early reaction to the reorganization was mixed.

Normer Adams, head of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children, worried that breaking down services into more departments could create fragmentation that wold make it even tougher to piece together care.

But Tom Rawlins, Georgia's child advocate, said the Department of Human Resources had become too large and unwieldy, handling everything from birth certificates to nursing homes to mental hospitals.

"I think what it recognizes is that it's better if you have agencies that are run really by experts in their fields," Rawlins said.

Heidi Moore, an Alpharetta disability advocate, said there was nowhere to go but up.

"The system is broken already," Moore said.


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