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Mental health agency OKs tight 2014 budget

The state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities has approved a fiscal 2014 budget that includes reductions to service providers, the closing of a nursing home and probable job cuts.

Like other state agencies, DBHDD is required to cut its budget 3 percent under orders from Gov. Nathan Deal’s Office of Planning and Budget. The state has been struggling with sluggish tax revenues amid a slow economy.

The current fiscal year also will take $27.8 million in cuts, but the fiscal 2014 reduction of the same amount will be much more difficult to absorb, agency officials said Thursday at their board meeting.

Jeff Minor, deputy commissioner of DBHDD, noted that the agency’s approval of a budget is just “the first step in a long process’’ of reaching a final budget.

“We hope it’s not a done deal,’’ Minor said of the austere new plan. “Some cuts we can take; some cuts are very difficult to take.’’

Spared from the budget knife is funding for the settlement agreements with the Department of Justice to boost community services and to improve state hospital care. Medicaid matching funds also have been exempted.  full story

Autism research initiative is a coup for state

Atlanta is the home of a new autism “center of excellence,’’ thanks to a federal grant of more than $8.3 million to Emory University.

The funding from the National Institutes of Health will launch a collaborative research initiative involving the Marcus Autism Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, the Department of Pediatrics at Emory School of Medicine, and the Yerkes Primate Research Center at Emory.

The center will be one of only three autism centers of excellence in the country. The research will focus on developing early detection and treatment for autism, along with looking into causes of the brain disorder.

The Marcus Center saw 5,600 children in 2011, making it the leading autism center in the U.S., officials said. A news conference Thursday at the state Capitol announced the grant and the center of excellence designation.

One of every 88 U.S. children is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. In Georgia, the rate is even higher –- one in every 84 children. Ami Klin, director of the Autism Center of Excellence and the Marcus Autism Center, told GHN that the state’s higher rate is due to broader detection and awareness efforts in Georgia.

Gov. Nathan Deal, speaking at the news conference, noted the magnitude of the autism problem and its effects not just on families but on communities. He called the autism initiative “a great opportunity for the state of Georgia.’’ full story

Report finds improvements under Justice pact

Georgia has made considerable progress in improving services for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities, a new report says.

The report by an independent reviewer, which was released last week, tracks the steps the state has taken since it agreed to revamp its services in an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Georgia has actually exceeded second-year targets of providing supported housing and employment for people with mental illness. It also surpassed its required number of placements of individuals with developmental disabilities from state hospitals into residential settings, according to the report by independent reviewer Elizabeth Jones.

But, like Jones’ report a year ago, this review also cites some significant problems.

A review of services for 48 individuals with developmental disabilities placed in community settings found rights violations, unsanitary environments, inadequate staffing, unsatisfactory day programs, and psychotropic drug use without informed consent. “Needed supports were found to be lacking,’’ Jones says in the report.

Frank Berry, who recently became commissioner of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), said that while the report is largely positive, “we’re most concerned that some individuals with developmental disabilities didn’t receive adequate support from our contracted service providers.”

Department spokesman Tom Wilson said Monday that the state is still building its network of service providers for people with developmental disabilities. “Providers needed more training and oversight’’ than some of them received, Wilson said.

In the 2010 settlement with the Justice Department, Georgia agreed to establish community services 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. full story

New leader of DBHDD announced

Frank W. Berry III was named Friday as the next commissioner of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

Berry, currently CEO of View Point Health in Lawrenceville, replaces Dr. Frank Shelp, the agency’s first commissioner, who announced his resignation last week.

Berry will assume his new duties Aug. 11. He will take over the reins of an agency that’s currently under pressure to meet requirements of the state’s 2010 agreement with the U.S. Justice Department to improve Georgia’s mental health and developmental disabilities system.

DBHDD’s developmental disabilities leadership recently experienced a shakeup, and before his departure, Shelp had been the focus of questions concerning his handling of agency bonuses and acceptance of lobbyists’ gifts.

Still, Shelp received considerable praise for leading the agency through its 2009 startup and for its work in creating more community services for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities. full story

Despite controversies, Shelp’s exit worries many

For weeks, the rumors swirled about Dr. Frank Shelp – that he would soon be gone as head of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

The speculation irritated those in the mental health and developmental disabilities community who supported Shelp’s work. Other people, though, wanted him gone.

The rumors turned into reality Friday, when Shelp, the only commissioner in the agency’s three-year history, announced his resignation. He will leave his post in August.

Appointed by the previous governor, Sonny Perdue, in 2009, Shelp led the state’s effort to implement the landmark 2010 settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to improve Georgia’s mental health and developmental disabilities system.

He directed the closure of the state mental hospital in Rome and the reduction of services at the Milledgeville campus, and oversaw the creation of new community services so people with disabilities could live outside of institutions.

Patient advocates contacted by GHN on Friday praised Shelp’s work on the Justice Department pact and on improving community services.

But Shelp also had some controversies to deal with, including accepting meals from lobbyists despite a ban on them for state employees by Gov. Nathan Deal, according to an AJC article.

State Rep. Keith Heard (D-Athens) criticized Shelp last year over the payment of 46 bonuses given to employees for taking  jobs as lowly as filing clerk all the way up to commissioner. All were paid outside of the state’s normal procedures, according to a Morris News Service article. full story

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