HED:Both houses pass mental health bills
By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON - The 15 regional mental health centers, including the facilities in Tupelo and Oxford, would be subjected to more state control under a bill passed by both the Mississippi House of Representatives and Senate.
The bill would require the 15 centers that cover all 82 counties in the state to meet certain minimum standards established by the Mississippi Department of Mental Health. The bill passed the House 108-6 Monday. It passed the Senate in a differing version earlier this session.
Sen. Billy Thames, D-Mize, the primary sponsor of the legislation that has been staunchly opposed by people associated with the regional centers, said members of the House and Senate probably will meet in conference committee to work out the differences in the legislation.
Rep. Bobby Moody, D-Louisville, chairman of the Public Health and Welfare Committee, said the purpose of the legislation is "to standardize services being provided by the regional mental health centers and try to make sure people working at these centers meet minimum requirements."
But representatives of the centers disagree.
They claim the legislation would remove local control. Currently, the centers are run by local boards of directors appointed by the supervisors in each regional center's area. For instance District III in Tupelo covers Lee, Itawamba, Monroe, Chickasaw, Pontotoc, Union and Benton counties. The center receives federal, state and county funds to provide various services to the mentally ill and mentally retarded.
"We want what is good for the community," Regional III Director Drue Sutherland said last month. "What we're trained to do is keep in touch with local people, and I doubt seriously we can do that as well if we're run by the state Department of Mental Health."
During debate on the issue on the House floor Monday afternoon, Moody said local people still would have control of the 15 centers. But the centers would be forced to meet minimum standards in the services offered. If the centers could not meet those standards, they would not receive state accreditation and thus would not be eligible for state funding to provide those services. Moody pointed out the centers still could provide other services where they met accreditation standards.
Moody also criticized opposition to the legislation by various boards of supervisors. He said many of the counties were providing a minimum tax levy of about one-quarter of a mill to operate the centers. A mill is $1 for each $1,000 of assessed property valuation.
The centers can offer up to 28 different types of services, such as alcohol and drug treatment and programs for troubled adolescents. Moody said on average the centers offer about 20 different types of services.
He said one example of requiring state standards might occur if a center was treating a female for alcohol or drug dependency, but would not treat a male.
The Senate version of the bill would allow the state Department of Mental Health, which is governed by a board appointed by the governor, to mandate that the centers provide certain services.
The Senate version also would require each facility to have holding cells for people who have been committed by a chancery judge to the state hospital because of mental illness. Often, these people are held in county jails until a bed becomes available at one of the two state hospitals for the mentally ill. Jails normally are not equipped to house mentally ill patients.
Crisis intervention centers for people who need immediate assistance also would be mandated in the Senate bill. Thames said 24-hour crisis intervention services would be needed for someone contemplating suicide.
The Senate proposal would take additional funding from the state.
During 1996, all 15 centers combined received about $6 million in county funding. The state is spending about $70 million on the centers, Thames said. But opponents argue that much of the $70 million is Medicaid funds where the majority comes from the federal government and the state provides a smaller matching share.