Lawmakers promise better care

Lawmakers promise better care

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Leaders seek change in mental health service and payments; they want patients' deaths reported, families informed

Leading legislators say they'll push a state agency to limit a mental health service that wasted at least $400 million during the past two years.

State senators said Monday they would seek changes in the way the government pays for community support, which has cost taxpayers more than $1 billion since March 2006. Legislators also want a law requiring state mental hospitals to report all deaths to North Carolina's medical examiner and give complete information about the causes to patients' relatives.

In 2001, the state instituted a plan to treat more mentally ill people in their own communities and fewer in the state's four psychiatric hospitals. Private businesses were to fill the gap, but costs flew out of control, seriously ill people went without treatment, and the state cut the numbers of hospital beds and staff.

A News & Observer investigation revealed 82 questionable deaths at state institutions since December 2000 and mismanagement of community support programs that allowed costs to explode.

Legislators discussed those issues Monday, but not Gov. Mike Easley, who oversees the state Department of Health and Human Services. A spokesman for Easley said he would not answer questions about mental health.

Private companies charge about $51 an hour for community support, a catch-all service that is supposed to help keep clients out of hospitals. Workers with a range of education and job experience are supposed to help clients, but many companies have employees with GEDs or high school diplomas doing most of the work.

Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Manteo Democrat, said it doesn't make sense to pay the same for a psychiatrist and a GED holder. At least, Basnight said, the state should tailor its rates to pay more per hour for licensed workers' time and less for high school graduates.

"That is a huge error," Basnight said. (more…)