Rome at forefront of mental health overhaul

The sweeping revamp of Georgia mental health system will get its first big test  in Rome.

State officials said Thursday that the state-run psychiatric hospital in that city will close June 30.  The shutdown of Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital will reflect a cost-savings push by state government. It also follows Georgia’s agreement in October with the U.S. Department of Justice to move people from mental hospitals into community living situations.

The DOJ accord — hailed by consumer advocates as a model for other states —  aims to increase community services across the state, including housing, crisis teams and stabilization units, so people with disabilities can avoid the need for hospitalization.

Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital currently has about 180 patients and 764 employees. It will stop taking new patients April 1.

A spokesman for the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities said Friday that the seven state-run mental hospitals saw a 29 percent decrease in people served last year. “We are not going to need seven hospitals or six hospitals after five years,’’ said the spokesman, Tom Wilson.

A majority of Northwest Georgia’s patients are people with developmental disabilities rather than mental illnesses, Wilson said. The DOJ agreement calls for all developmentally disabled patients to be served in community settings within five years. Wilson said Rome is ahead of other regions in getting those patients out of hospitals.

Currently hospitalized patients will live in individual apartments, group homes and other settings, he said. People with mental illness, Wilson added, will be aided by more crisis teams and stabilization units. Mental health patients requiring hospitalization will be treated in private facilities.

The Rome hospital’s forensic patients — those under court jurisdiction — will be moved to other mental hospitals in the state. “We can’t have a hospital on every corner,’’ Wilson said. “We will have to consolidate forensics and free up more capacity.’’

“Under the Olmstead decision [a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling], we have an obligation to serve people in the least restrictive setting,’’ Wilson said. “A hospital is the most restrictive setting.’’

The Justice Department agreement with Georgia underscored the Obama administration’s aggressive push to ensure that people with disabilities can get services in their communities, and not be forced to live in institutions. The DOJ began investigating Georgia’s mental hospitals in 2007, under the Bush administration, after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported widespread problems in those facilities, including dozens of suspicious deaths of patients.

Consumer advocates praised the state’s move to close the hospital, but they sounded cautious about the state’s ability to provide effective programs and housing in communities.

“It depends on how things are done, who’s doing it, and the oversight,’’ said Pat Puckett, executive director of the Statewide Independent Living Council of Georgia. “The move is the right move if the people are handled well.’’

Sherry Jenkins Tucker of the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network said Friday that people with mental illness ‘’basically need what everybody else needs. They need a safe and accessible home. Meaningful activities during the day, such as work. Access to treatment options. They need therapeutic interventions.’’ And they need support from trained peers who can help them, she added.

Housing for people with mental illness is often non-existent, added Sue Jamieson of the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. When the state recently closed a mental health unit at the Milledgeville hospital, she said, “There were virtually no residential options.’’

Wilson, the spokesman for the state agency, said current employees at the Rome hospital will have a chance to work in other hospitals as well as in the crisis teams, stabilization units and other community settings.

The Rome News-Tribune has an article on the closure, with reactions from area lawmakers.