OPINION: Barbour had sights on mental health cuts in the past

During his first term as governor, I asked Gov. Haley Barbour why he appeared to be dragging his feet on signing legislation to fund the state’s crisis mental health centers.
At the time, Barbour said he was concerned about the state’s per capita mental health spending in comparison with the surrounding states. He said that Mississippi’s spending was above the national average – something that’s rare for Mississippi in virtually any economic index.
For the record, the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors Research Institute reported that in Fiscal Year 2006, per capita spending on mental health agencies in Mississippi was $110 per capita – compared with a national average of $103.53 per capita.
In the same year, Alabama spent $64.43 per capita on their state mental health program – while Arkansas spent $38.58, Louisiana spent $60.89, and Tennessee spent $88.02. The average of the surrounding states’ per capita spending on mental health agencies was $62.98.
In spite of those objections, Barbour in 2006 signed House Bill 210 into law.
The bill fully funded the state’s seven mental health crisis centers and the Specialized Treatment Facility for juvenile mental patients in Harrison County.
The centers were conceived and constructed as facilities to treat the mentally ill who would otherwise be warehoused in county jails when their families were unable to care for them at home and the state’s mental hospitals were full.
In 1999, the Legislature issued $20 million in bonds to build seven mental health crisis centers – but between 1999 and 2006, funds for operation of the facilities were a political football.
The first center opened in Corinth in 2001 and eventually had all 16 beds funded for use.
But five other centers in the Delta and central Mississippi, opened since 2004, only had funding for eight of 16 beds for patients.
House Bill 210 provided $13.8 million in operating funds for the centers from the General Fund, $4.3 million from the Crisis Intervention Mental Health Fund and $876,507 from the Health Care Expendable Trust Fund. It also authorized 385 staff positions to operate the facilities.
Now, a decade after the Legislature issued bonds to pay to build the facilities and three years after Barbour signed a bill to fund operations of the facilities, the governor has recommended closing four State Department of Mental Health facilities and six of the seven mental health crisis centers.
Barbour says the proposed cuts would result in significant savings – $18 million in the next fiscal year and another $10 million for 2012. Overall, closing centers could save $35 million, but some would go to other mental health needs.
The governor says the mental patients who had been treated at the mental hospitals and crisis centers would be treated at community mental health centers.
But at the end of the day, what Barbour’s plan does is to take us back to where we were before he signed House Bill 210 in 2006.
Mental patients will again be housed in county jails.
County taxpayers will foot the bill instead of the state – and we will return to the barbaric practice of jailing innocent people for the “crime” of mental illness.
That might help the state make its budget numbers, but it’s still wrong. Hard times doesn’t make it right. Shame on us all if we agree to this.

Contact syndicated columnist Sid Salter at (601) 961-7084 or e-mail ssalter@clarionledger.com.

Sid Salter