Easley asks for more power to oversee state mental health system


By MIKE BAKER – WCNC / Associated Press

Gov. Mike Easley asked state lawmakers Tuesday to give his cabinet more power to manage North Carolina’s mental health care system.

Easley said Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dempsey Benton needs the power to appoint, evaluate and fire mental health care providers, as well as additional authority to help eliminate problems in the state’s mental health care system.

“This will not work unless the secretary gets some management tools,” Easley said.

A mental health care reform effort started in 2001 was designed to shift more patients from institutional care to community-based treatment offered by private medical providers. A series of stories published last week in The News & Observer of Raleigh detailed how those changes left mental health patients struggling to find professional care.

“We had our concerns about the reforms of 2001,” Easley said. “It was privatization that went too far too quickly.”

Among the problems, care providers often employ workers with only high school diplomas instead of professional caregivers. Easley said state law doesn’t give the Department of Health and Human Services enough power to quickly eliminate providers who are not offering quality care.

The state is no longer accepting new providers, Easley said, and officials will try to offer differential pay to providers based on the level of service offered.

The shift to community-based mental health care was designed to ease the burden on the state’s mental health hospitals. But the changes instead drove patients to seek more visits at the hospitals as community-based care lagged in quality and accessibility.

Easley said the state is gaining 60 mental hospital beds with the opening the new $120 million Central Regional Hospital in Butner. He said that gain will only be achieved by keeping open 115 beds at the nearby John Umstead Hospital, which was originally slated to close this year.

The governor also proposed a $40 million plan to help cut down on hospital stays by setting up mobile crisis teams and provide more beds at local facilities.