Miss. AG hopes settlement will fund mental health

By Molly Davis/The Associated Press

JACKSON – Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood said Thursday he hopes that lawmakers will use $20.2 million that the state received from settling its lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies to fund mental health programs next year.

Hood, a Democrat, said the funds would address the mental health care “crisis” that prompted child-services advocates to sue the state in 2010. He said that increasing funds for community programs could prevent similar legal challenges in the future.

The Southern Poverty Law Center in their ongoing case charges that Mississippi fails to care for low-income children with mental illness. The plaintiffs say that, in order to avoid further lawsuits, the state must shift funds away from large psychiatric hospitals and toward community care.

“This $20 million would go a long way toward filling a hole that will help protect our citizens from people who are mentally ill,” Hood said. “Law enforcement certainly does not want to see people who are mentally ill locked up in jail. That’s not where they belong, and that’s what’s going to happen if we don’t spend the money now.”

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Johnny Stringer, D-Montrose, agreed. He said the budget for the year that begins July 1 just happens to be short $20 million, and the money would help support the state’s 15 community mental health centers. They serve residents with intellectual disabilities and mental illness.

“They don’t deserve to be put in jail,” Stringer said. “They’re not criminals. They’re just sick like someone who has a heart attack.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center charges in a suit filed last year that Mississippi fails low-income children by funding large, ineffective institutions rather than providing services in the communities where patients live. The complaint says that institutional care can often be “counterproductive and harmful.” The case is being mediated.

Sheila Bedi, the deputy legal director for the SPLC’s Children at Risk program, said the problem comes from how the state implements its program, not solely from the budget gap.

“Mississippi’s mental health crisis is not just about a shortage of funds,” Bedi said. “It’s about misaligned priorities that focus on institutions at the expense of community-based services.”

She said that for the state to minimize its liability, it would need to reduce the number of beds in institutions, besides increasing funds for community-based centers.

A state Department of Health spokeswoman, Wendy Bailey, said the settlement money would complete the state’s Medicaid match for the community center program.

“The CMHCs help prevent individuals from needing lengthy inpatient care and serve patients who are discharged from private and public hospitals to ensure they do not need to return to a hospital for additional lengthy inpatient care,” Bailey wrote in an e-mail.

The new funding comes from litigation that the attorney general’s office recently settled with four drug companies: GlaxoSmithKline, Aventis, Schering/Warrick and Mylan. The suit came after allegations of Medicaid fraud and consumer protection violations related to inflation of the average wholesale price of drugs.

After other states began settling similar suits, Hood found that some companies had inflated prices as much 1,200 percent in sales to Mississippi’s Medicaid and public employee insurance programs.

At $8 million, GlaxoSmithKline’s contribution to the fund amounted to the largest sum in the case. To date, the attorney general has recovered $47.9 million during the fiscal year that started last July 1. Settlement funds totaled nearly $128 million last fiscal year, and more than $500 million over the course of Hood’s nearly eight-year tenure.

“There are other companies that we still have out there that we’re still litigating with,” Hood said, adding that he hopes for more settlements.