TUPELO • A community mental health center in Northeast Mississippi receives less money per person from the counties it serves than any other in the state, a recent report on mental health access in the state concluded.
In a report from the office of the state’s recently created mental health czar, data show that there are vast differences in how much funding community mental health centers receive each year from local county governments.
“The diversity between county contributions is sizable,” the report concluded.
Community mental health centers in Mississippi act independently of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, but they must comply with regulations put forward by the state agency.
Northeast Mississippi counties pay lowest amount per person
There are 13 different community mental health centers, or CMHCs, in the state, and each covers specific counties.
Region 3, which includes Benton, Chickasaw, Itawamba, Lee, Monroe, Pontotoc and Union counties, receives the lowest per person contribution from counties, calculated at $1.12 per person, according to the report.
Within the region, Lee County, which has a population of around 85,756 people, contributes the most: $101,411. Benton County, which has a population of 8,291 people, pays the lowest at $10,000.
The Legislature’s yearly appropriation bill for the Department of Mental Health includes money for CMHCs, but for the community organizations to receive that money, county governments must contribute a base level of funds.
County governments are required to contribute at least a three-fourths of a mill tax on all taxable property in the county as determined in its 1982 fiscal year, or the amount of funds the county contributed to the organization in fiscal year 1984 — whichever is greater, according to the report.
Bill Benson, the Lee County administrator, said that Lee County officials have complied with funding requests for the Region 3 mental health center, Lifecore.
Benson said the last time Lifecore requested a funding increase was two or three years ago. They requested approximately $10,000 more per year than they were receiving from the county.
Len Blanton, the chief financial officer of Lifecore, told the Daily Journal that while it may be true that Region 3 receives lowest amount of money per person from the counties it covers, looking at the numbers alone can be misleading.
For example, Blanton said that while Benton County may only pay $10,000 in contributions, they also provide Lifecore with a building in the area to utilize free of charge. That doesn't get accounted for in contributions.
"We’re not unhappy with the county level support at all," Blanton said. "We appreciate all the support counties give us."
The report found that county-level funding only makes up about 3% of CMHC's total revenue, but also noted these community organizations spend a large amount of money — over $33 million in 2018 alone — providing uncompensated care to patients who cannot afford to pay for treatment.
Last year, State Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, authored a bill that created the office of the coordinator of mental health accessibility, commonly referred to as the mental health czar.
Bryan, who chairs the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, previously told the Daily Journal that the goal of the legislation was to improve the access to mental health care in the state and signal to the federal courts the state is making an effort to improve the system.
Access to local mental health care at heart of federal litigation
The report comes amid a legal dispute between the state and the Department of Justice over the mental health services in Mississippi.
U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves last week issued a final order and other remedial orders in the case that appointed an external monitor to ensure the mental health system complies with federal law. The order lists a litany ways the state can improve its community mental health care systems.
Reeves gave state officials 120 days to develop a long-term plan to improve access to mental health care. The Justice Department will then have a chance to respond to the proposal.
The federal government began investigating the state’s mental health system 10 years ago and concluded that Mississippi was unnecessarily segregating people with mental health issues into state-run hospitals for lengthy periods instead of offering treatment in local communities.
The state initially attempted to enter into a mediation process with the federal government, but that process eventually fell apart. The Justice Department then sued the state in 2016.
The state was forced to enter into a remedial process after Reeves ruled in September 2019 that Mississippi violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act by having inadequate resources in Mississippi communities to treat people with mental illnesses — a violation of their civil rights.
The first report on the CMHCs largely focused on establishing the framework for how the centers operate in the state and the services they provide. Later reports from the office will delve more deeply into services and structures and make recommendations for improvement.