Report: Georgia is failing to meet the needs of patients with mental illness and developmental disabilities

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Georgia is still failing to meet key parts of its agreement with the U.S. Justice Department on caring for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities, according to an independent reviewer’s report released this week.

The reviewer, Elizabeth Jones, cited “preventable deaths occurring in the state system, often the product of confirmed neglect.’’ Many deaths of people with developmental disabilities were classified as ‘‘unexpected,’’ she said.

Furthermore, on the issue of Georgia’s obligation to provide supported housing for people with mental illness, Jones said the state’s performance “appears to be slipping, rather than moving forward as expected.’’

Jones’ oversight role arose from a 2010 settlement agreement between the state and the Justice Department. In that landmark pact, Georgia agreed to provide new community services for people with mental illness and those with developmental or intellectual disabilities.

The new report by Jones, dated Monday, is more sharply worded than her past reviews of the state’s performance.

In response, Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities acknowledged flaws in some programs but defended the state’s progress in revamping the system.

“We believe we have put in place the fundamental building blocks at the department and in our provider network to provide adequate services and oversight and respond to people with complex needs,’’ DBHDD Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald said Tuesday.

“We will work to improve our ability to meet their needs in spite of challenging workforce shortages,’’ Fitzgerald said, citing a need for more nurses and certified behavioral specialists.

In the 2010 pact, the state agreed to end all admissions of people with developmental disabilities to state psychiatric hospitals. It also promised that patients with developmental disabilities already in those hospitals would be moved to more appropriate settings in their communities.

Georgia also agreed to establish community services and housing for about 9,000 people with mental illness, and to create community support and crisis intervention teams to help people with developmental disabilities and mental illness avoid hospitalization. An AJC series in 2007 about deaths of patients in state hospitals helped lead to the settlement.

Earlier this year, GHN reported that the state had asked the DOJ to end its oversight of Georgia’s public system for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

Jones, in her report, took exception to the state’s assertion that it is in substantial compliance with the terms of the settlement agreement. The Department of Justice recently told the state that it does not agree with Georgia’s  request to end federal oversight at this time, officials said.

To improve care for people with disabilities, Fitzgerald said, the state is giving assistance to medical and community providers “in special areas of concern.’’

“One preventable death is too many,’’ Fitzgerald said. “We will continue to invest in improvements in quality of care at the individual level’’ and build a tracking system to identify major trends, she added.

Among deficiencies Jones cited are state data that are not “entirely reliable.’’ She also said Georgia doesn’t have statistics on how many people with mental illness make frequent trips to hospital emergency rooms.

The Jones report said the number of people with mental illness who have authorizations for housing vouchers has decreased. “Utilization of supported housing is the problem in Georgia, not the lack of need for it,’’ the report said.

DBHDD’s Fitzgerald said that “we recognize there are fundamental flaws in the state’s approach to housing.’’

She said the agency plans to overhaul its approach to housing. The current eligibility process “is cumbersome and complex,’’ she added.

“We don’t dispute the reduction in individuals moving into our housing program. That’s a concern to us as well,’’ Fitzgerald said. “We hope we can effectively utilize this important state-funded resource, as it is essential to recovery.’’

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