Governor urged to fill ombudsman position

The job of state disability services ombudsman has been open for eight months now, and consumer advocates fear that the position will not be filled.

A Savannah leader of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, John Richards, recently wrote Gov. Nathan Deal a letter urging him to appoint an ombudsman soon.

Consumer advocacy groups, Richards wrote, “believe it is extremely important that you appoint a qualified professional [who] will provide honest and independent reports to your office, the legislature, and the citizens of Georgia.’’

Funding for the ombudsman was not included in the budget the General Assembly passed last week, an advocacy group said.

Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said that the governor will fill the vacancy. “The governor wants a strong advocate for Georgians in that job,’’ Robinson said. “The mental health community can rest assured that this is a priority for the governor and we will fill the position.’’

Robinson said Monday that federal money is available to pay for the ombudsman position, and that the state Insurance Commissioner’s office has applied for this funding.

The disability services ombudsman fields complaints and promotes the rights of people with mental illness and those with developmental disabilities or addictions. The previous ombudsman, Jewel Norman, who left the position in August 2010 for health reasons, also supervised independent reviews of deaths of patients in state psychiatric hospitals.

The vacancy coincides with major changes in state’s mental health system. Georgia has agreed to build community mental health services across the state, such as housing, crisis teams and stabilization units, as a result of a 2010 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The enhanced services would treat people when they first need care, rather than have them deteriorate and cycle in and out of the state’s psychiatric hospitals. Under the pact, the state agreed to move people from the hospitals into community living situations.

The DOJ accord also installed a federal monitor to oversee the state’s progress on these goals. But that job differs from the state ombudsman in that the latter conducts regular reviews of deaths, said Ellyn Jeager, public policy director for Mental Health America of Georgia.

“The ombudsman position has been vacant for a long time,’’ Jeager said. “We haven’t seen any movement.’’

The $250,000 funding for the position was not included in the budget approved last week, she said.

“If they say they will fill [the position], that’s good,’’ Jeager said.

The ombudsman job was created in 2000, but funding wasn’t appropriated until 2009, in the wake of a series of articles by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that reported there were more than 100 suspicious deaths of mental hospital patients from 2002 through 2006.

Sherry Jenkins Tucker of the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network said recently that the ombudsman job should be filled. “It’s an important position in the limited advocacy array that we have,’’ she said.

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 cited other problems in the state’s mental health system. Many patients lingered 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.

The state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, which oversees the psychiatric hospitals and the mental health system, said the agency considered it a ‘’draft report’’ – even though it was labeled ‘’interim report,’’ and was posted on the Internet.

Meanwhile, the state said earlier this year that  it plans to close its psychiatric hospital in Rome. And state officials recently announced the creation of new community services in North Georgia to help people with mental illness.