TUPELO • Mississippi could soon be one step closer to resolving its half-decade-long litigation with the U.S. Justice Department over the state’s troubled mental health system.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves on Feb. 24 ordered attorneys representing the state of Mississippi to file a systematic plan to improve the state’s mental health services. A plan must be submitted by April 30.

The state can either file an agreed-upon plan with the federal government or file its own separate plan if the state and federal government disagree on a remedial plan.

If Mississippi submits a jointly agreed plan with the federal government, that plan would mostly likely be the order the court agrees to.

But if the state’s attorneys cannot reach common ground with federal government, the Justice Department will file a separate proposed solution no later than 21 days after the state submits its own proposal.

Michael Hogan, the appointed special master who is ensuring the court’s wishes are carried out during the litigation, will have a chance to weigh in on any potential disagreements by June 4.

“The Special Master is asked to support his recommendations by reference to his vast experience and knowledge of mental health systems, rather than to any statement made by a party during settlement negotiations,” the order reads.

If the parties disagree on a plan to improve the state’s mental health services, Reeves will then issue a new order on which party’s plan he agrees with more.

Reeves’ timeline comes after attorneys with the federal and state government admitted during a status conference on Feb. 23 that both parties mostly agree on how to improve mental health services, but a major point of contention is who will actually monitor the progress the state agrees to carry out.

“We have all but dotted our i’s and crossed our t’s on the substantive components of the court’s remedial order,” said Deena Fox, the lead attorney from the Department of Justice, during the February status conference.

However, Fox said that the department was not yet able to agree to monitoring and enforcement provisions of an agreement.

A plan to improve the delivery of mental health services could mark a turning in the state’s dismal mental health treatment, since the federal government first filed suit against the state over the services in 2016.

The state was forced to enter into a remedial process after Reeves ruled in September 2019 that Mississippi was in violation of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act because there were inadequate resources in Mississippi communities to treat people with mental illnesses effectively.

“Despite the state’s episodic improvement, it operates a system that unlawfully discriminates against persons with serious mental illness,” Judge Reeves said in the 2019 opinion. The opinion concluded that Mississippians with mental illness were essentially being segregated to state-run hospitals instead of being treated within community centers.

The attorneys will convene for a new hearing before the court in June 2021.

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