Deal names new Ga. disability ombudsman

After being vacant for almost 10 months, the job of state disability services ombudsman has been filled.

Corinna Magelund, who was an official in the administration of the previous governor, Sonny Perdue, has been appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to take over the ombudsman position.

Magelund most recently served at the Department of Community Affairs, where she worked closely with the Governor’s Office of Disability Services, according to a statement Friday from Deal’s office.

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 last August for health reasons, also supervised independent reviews of deaths of patients in state psychiatric hospitals.

Before Magelund’s appointment, consumer advocacy groups had been calling for months for the ombudsman job to be filled. They cited the major changes being implemented in the 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 with disabilities and those with mental health problems from the hospitals into community living situations.

The state has recently formed several assertive community treatment teams to help people with mental illness, and has established a crisis stabilization unit in Flowery Branch, with another set to begin operating in Rome. More than 100 people with mental illness will receive supported housing by July 1, and 60 people are receiving job help, a state official said last month.

Much of the activity has centered on the Rome area, where Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital, one of the seven state-run psychiatric hospitals, is scheduled to close Sept. 30.

The ombudsman job was created in 2000, but funding for it was not 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.

“This position needed to be filled,’’ said Ellyn Jeager, public policy director for Mental Health America of Georgia. “I trust that the person who has been appointed understands the complexities of this job and the hard work that lies ahead.’’

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

Richards said Friday that NAMI is “extremely pleased’’ that the job has been filled. “We look forward to working with [Magelund],’’ he said. “We are hopeful that she will be our tripwire’’ on problems within the system.

Before her departure, Norman issued 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, including persistent backups in hospital emergency rooms of patients 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.

Magelund, a native of Camilla, earned her bachelor’s degree in speech communications with an emphasis in organizational communications from Valdosta State University, the statement from Deal’s office said. Magelund is involved with the Chastain Horseback Therapeutic Riding Program, which helps people with major medical problems, mental illness or disabilities.

The ombudsman position is important for Georgia, said Talley Wells, director of the Mental Health and Disability Rights Project for the Atlanta Legal Aid Society.

“It’s essential to have an independent voice monitoring what happens in our state institutions,’’ Wells said. “I hope she will be a strong voice for a robust community system for people with disabilities.’’