A file photo of the U.S. District Court in Jackson. Attorneys for the state of Mississippi and the U.S. Dept. of Justice participated in a status conference on Feb. 22 about pending litigation regarding the mental health services in Mississippi.

JACKSON Attorneys representing the U.S. Department of Justice and the state of Mississippi on Monday afternoon announced they are close to agreeing on a solution to improve the services of Mississippi’s beleaguered mental health system.

In a status conference before U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, attorneys with the Department of Justice and state said they have concurred on most of the substantive issues.

A major sticking point, however, is who should monitor the state’s progress in ensuring that it complies with whatever plan is hammered out by the attorneys.

“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.

Some of those points of agreement include the services that should be offered in different parts of the state and how those services should be offered.

Fox said she hoped that the department and attorneys for the state can “close the gap” as it relates to the monitoring and enforcement provisions of an agreement, but that gap as of right now remains unresolved.

One option would see an external monitor update the court on the state’s progress. This option has received some pushback from key statewide leaders.

In an interview with the Daily Journal in December, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said he opposed a long-term monitor because he believes such monitors have to “justify their existence” by finding additional problems and continually “move the goalposts” for what progress looks like.

Another option would see the state submit its own progress reports to the court and let Reeves act as a referee on whether the state is making sufficient progress in improving mental health services.

If the state and the Department of Justice cannot reach an agreement on monitoring and enforcement, they can each submit proposals to the court. Reeves would then make a judgement on which proposal he favors more.

Reeves is expected to release a timeline for the parties to either submit a joint agreement or separate proposals in the next few days or weeks.

The public mention of an agreement on how Mississippi can improve access to mental health services across the state marks a significant turn in the lawsuit, which the state has been involved with for many years.

In September 2019, Reeves ruled that the state’s mental health system was in violation of the American Disabilities Act because there were inadequate resources in Mississippi communities to adequately treat people with mental illnesses.

Since then, the state has been in the process of complying with the court’s order to improve mental health services by negotiating with the Department of Justice on a plan.

The announcement of an agreement comes at a time when significant changes have occurred at the Department of Mental Health and when the Legislature has attempted to remedy some of the problems with mental health access.

In January, the director of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health resigned. Wendy Bailey, deputy director for administrative services, replaced her. In Oct. 2020, the director of the Mississippi Department of Finance and Administration also appointed Bill Rosamond as the new mental health czar to evaluate and possibly reform the way the state provides mental health services.

Once either the attorneys have reached an agreement or Reeves rules in favor of a submitted a proposal, parties can either appeal the ruling or agree to begin implementing the proposal.

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