Disabilities ombudsman job still vacant

The job of state disability services ombudsman remains unfilled six months after becoming vacant.

The Georgia ombudsman fields complaints and promotes the rights of people with mental illness and those with developmental disabilities or addictions. The previous ombudsman, Jewel Norman, produced a report last year that cited problems in Georgia’s mental health system.

The continuing job vacancy, though, comes at a time of rapid change for mental health and developmental disabilities services in the state.

State officials announced in January that the state-run psychiatric hospital in Rome will close June 30.  The shutdown of Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital 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, praised as a model for other states, aims to build community services across Georgia, including housing, crisis teams and stabilization units, so people with disabilities can avoid hospitalization.

A spokesman for the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities said Wednesday that the agency has suggested possible ombudsman candidates to Gov. Nathan Deal’s staff. “There is no timeline right now’’ for an appointment, said Tom Wilson, the spokesman.

The office still operates and fields calls from consumers, he said. The ombudsman office, though, is no longer conducting independent reviews of deaths of hospital patients. Wilson said the state reviews those deaths and that the Justice Department can review them as well.

Yet Ellyn Jeager, public policy director of Mental Health America of Georgia, an advocacy group, said, “I’m disappointed the [ombudsman] position has not been filled. It should be an integral part of the mental health system.’’

The Rome hospital closure, meanwhile, has raised concerns among consumer advocacy groups about whether sufficient community services will be in place to handle the load of patients exiting the facility.

“We are not against the closing of the hospital,’’ said Bonnie Moore, a leader of the Rome chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group. “But we need to make sure the services are in place and are working properly. We need to make sure there’s a safety net for people who need to be hospitalized.’’

Wilson said the June 30 date for closing the Rome hospital is flexible, depending whether community services are established in time.

The DOJ agreement calls for hospitalized developmentally disabled patients to be served in community settings within five years, though patients can remain in a facility if they or their families choose that option.

The Rome hospital’s forensic patients — those under court jurisdiction — will be moved to other mental hospitals in the state.

The previous ombudsman, Norman, was the first person to hold the job, taking office in July 2009. The Legislature created the ombudsman position in 2000, but funding was not appropriated by the state until 2009. Norman left the job in August due to health reasons.

Before her departure, Norman generated a report that said an independent review team found poor medical care in the deaths of 23 patients at Georgia’s mental hospitals during the 2010 fiscal year.

The report also showed that the state’s mental health system continued to be plagued by other problems, despite scrutiny by the Department of Justice. Many patients still sat for hours in general hospitals’ emergency rooms, waiting for mental health treatment. And jails across the state still housed a high percentage of people with psychiatric illnesses, the report added.

Still, Norman, in an interview last year with Georgia Health News, said that she had seen improvement in the seven state-run psychiatric hospitals.

The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities at that time declined to comment on the contents of the report. Spokesman Wilson, in an e-mail statement, said the agency and Gov. Sonny Perdue’s office considered it a ‘’draft report’’ – even though it was labeled ‘’interim report,’’ and was posted on the Internet.