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.

Heard asked Shelp at a legislative hearing about his own $22,500 hiring bonus and $2,000-per-month housing allowance on top of his $225,000 salary.

Shelp made no apology to the lawmaker, Walter Jones of Morris News reported. “I do not feel ashamed about the package I negotiated to take this job,” Shelp told Heard last year.

In addition, the agency has been criticized over its rule of allowing just four people with developmental disabilities to live in any group home. DBHDD cited the Justice Department settlement for that requirement for people with disabilities. (Here’s a GHN article on the housing issue.)

Consumer advocates noted that Shelp’s departure comes at a critical time for the state as it continues to carry out the Justice settlement and as it contemplates a restructuring of the state’s Medicaid program, which covers many people with disabilities.

Ellyn Jeager, public policy director of Mental Health America of Georgia, said this is “a terrible time’’ to see Shelp leaving.  He has shown he understands the importance of working and living in the community for people with mental illness, she said. “He was doing the right thing.’’

Sherry Jenkins Tucker, executive director of the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network, said she was ‘‘very sorry to hear of [Shelp’s] resignation.’’

“I believe that the Georgia public mental health system has improved during his watch,’’ she added.

Pat Nobbie, deputy director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, said that though she heard the rumors, she still was surprised about Shelp’s resignation.

Shelp was beginning to understand the issues of the developmental disabilities community, Nobbie said.

The transition comes at a bad time, Nobbie said. ‘‘A lot of us are feeling very vulnerable,’’ with major changes being contemplated for people with disabilities under Medicaid, she said. The agency’s developmental disabilities leadership has undergone a shakeup recently, Nobbie noted.

The Justice Department settlement was at the center of the agency’s work under Shelp.

Talley Wells, director of the Disability Rights Project of Atlanta Legal Aid, said Shelp “took on and pushed forward a herculean task of creating a brand-new department entrusted with the lives of many of our most vulnerable Georgians while the state was being sued by the federal government.’’

Shelp recently told reporters that the patient readmission rate to psychiatric hospitals within 30 days – historically high in Georgia – has dropped from 13.4 percent prior to the settlement to a figure of 7.7 percent.

The state’s hospital patient census has also declined, Shelp added.

And in the northwest region of Georgia, where the state psychiatric hospital has been closed, more people at risk of hospitalization have received mental health services for a lesser amount of money, Shelp said.

Under the settlement with the Justice Department, Georgia agreed to establish community services, including supported housing, 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.

Georgia pledged to end all admissions of people with developmental disabilities to the state psychiatric hospitals. It also promised that patients with developmental disabilities already in those hospitals would be moved out of them by July 2015.

The governor’s office will be conducting a search for Shelp’s replacement, the state said Friday.

Wells said, “It will be critical that the new commissioner have a passion for people with disabilities, experience in overcoming the issues that led to the Justice Department investigation, a deep understanding of Medicaid, and the people skills to work with advocates, providers, the disability community, and state leaders.”