Georgia is still failing to meet key parts of its agreement with the U.S. Justice Department on caring for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities, according to a recent independent reviewer’s report.
The reviewer, Elizabeth Jones, cited “preventable deaths occurring in the state system, often the product of confirmed neglect.’’ Many deaths of people with developmental disabilities were classified as ‘‘unexpected,’’ she said.
Furthermore, on the issue of Georgia’s obligation to provide supported housing for people with mental illness, Jones said the state’s performance “appears to be slipping, rather than moving forward as expected.’’
Jones’ oversight role arose from a 2010 settlement agreement between the state and the Justice Department. In that landmark pact, Georgia agreed to provide new community services for people with mental illness and those with developmental or intellectual disabilities.
The new report by Jones is more sharply worded than her past reviews of the state’s performance.
In response, Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) acknowledged flaws in some programs but defended the state’s progress in revamping the system.
“We believe we have put in place the fundamental building blocks at the department and in our provider network to provide adequate services and oversight and respond to people with complex needs,’’ DBHDD Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald said.
“We will work to improve our ability to meet their needs in spite of challenging workforce shortages,’’ Fitzgerald said, citing a need for more nurses and certified behavioral specialists.
In the 2010 pact, the state agreed to end all admissions of people with developmental disabilities to state psychiatric hospitals. It also promised that patients with developmental disabilities already in those hospitals would be moved to more appropriate settings in their communities.
Georgia also agreed to establish community services and housing for about 9,000 people with mental illness, and to create community support and crisis intervention teams to help people with developmental disabilities and mental illness avoid hospitalization. An AJC series in 2007 about deaths of patients in state hospitals helped lead to the settlement.
Earlier this year, GHN reported that the state had asked the DOJ to end its oversight of Georgia’s public system for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.
Jones, in her report, took exception to the state’s assertion that it is in substantial compliance with the terms of the settlement agreement. The Department of Justice recently told the state that it does not agree with Georgia’s request to end federal oversight at this time, officials said.
To improve care for people with disabilities, Fitzgerald said, the state is giving assistance to medical and community providers “in special areas of concern.’’
“One preventable death is too many,’’ Fitzgerald said. “We will continue to invest in improvements in quality of care at the individual level’’ and build a tracking system to identify major trends, she added.
Among deficiencies Jones cited are state data that are not entirely reliable. She also said Georgia doesn’t have statistics on how many people with mental illness make frequent trips to hospital emergency rooms.
Jones’ report said the number of people with mental illness who have authorizations for housing vouchers has decreased.
“Utilization of supported housing is the problem in Georgia, not the lack of need for it,’’ the report said.
DBHDD’s Fitzgerald said that “we recognize there are fundamental flaws in the state’s approach to housing.’’
She said the agency plans to overhaul its approach to housing. The current eligibility process “is cumbersome and complex,’’ she added.
“We don’t dispute the reduction in individuals moving into our housing program. That’s a concern to us as well,’’ Fitzgerald said. “We hope we can effectively utilize this important state-funded resource, as it is essential to recovery.’’
Pathways Center and Coweta Cares
Pathways Center provides mental health services in Coweta County and the facility partnered with Coweta County Fire Rescue (CCFR) to make mental health services even more accessible.
The health organization also serves a 10-county area, according to its website.
The new Pathways Care Campus located on Hospital Road has not opened yet, but
includes a child and adolescent unit and an adult unit.
The new crisis centers will provide walk-in evaluations for those in a mental health crisis, inpatient crisis stabilization and substance abuse detox.
The child and adolescent unit will have 16 beds, and the adult unit will have six 24-hour observation beds and 24 crisis beds, according to Benefield.
At a ribbon cutting ceremony earlier in the summer, CEO Jade Benefield said the project began about four years ago when he met with County Administrator Michael Fouts and ran the idea of a crisis center by him.
Benefield said he expected Fouts to say no, that it would be too big of a project or too much money. However, Benefield said that Fouts thought that the center would be a great thing for the county.
“It’s definitely an exciting day to see the new facilities. Our county and our citizens will be proud of this for a long time,” Fouts said.
The facility is a joint project of Pathways, Coweta County and the Coweta Hospital Authority. The authority, which manages money from the 1982 sale of Coweta General Hospital to Humana, is funding the construction.
Benefield said the buildings have unique features that set them apart from other crisis centers. The units have original artwork donated by local artists, exercise rooms and high ceilings, so the buildings don’t feel claustrophobic.
The children’s unit features a reward room with a TV and games and a playground.
Benefield said he is not aware of any other mental health crisis center with both child and adult units next to each other.
Pathways Care Campus is named for a program called Coweta Cares. Coweta Cares is a mobile integrated health care unit for behavioral health calls.
The program is a collaboration between CCFR and the Pathways Center.
The Coweta Cares unit will be staffed by paramedics from CCFR and a licensed professional counselor from Pathways.
The unit will not provide emergency response, but instead seeks to provide “communication before crisis,” said CCFR Assistant Chief Jeff Denney in a previous Newnan Times-Herald interview.
Initially, the unit will be staffed Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and will visit Cowetans who have been regular callers to Coweta 911 for behavioral health issues, as well as other patients with behavioral health issues who are referred to the service – and some stroke patients.
The unit is an SUV, not an ambulance, and the staff won’t wear typical paramedic uniforms.
Jeff Denny, assistant CCFR chief, said the program is currently in a soft launch phase and is open from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. Monday and Thursday.
He said once the new facility opens, normal business hours Monday through Friday will resume.
Anyone who needs to utilize the services of the program can call 770-683-CARE.
Denny said a paramedic has already been hired for the new facility on Hospital Road.
Kandice Bell, staff writer for The Newnan Times-Herald, contributed to this story.