Georgia and the U.S. Department of Justice remain at an impasse over improvements to the state’s services for people with mental illness and developmental... Judge slams state over slow pace on talks with Justice Department

Georgia and the U.S. Department of Justice remain at an impasse over improvements to the state’s services for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities, despite a federal judge’s push for quicker action to resolve their differences.

Wednesday was the day set by U.S. District Court Judge Charles Pannell last month for attorneys for the two sides to report back to him on their progress. But after a brief conference in his court Wednesday, he told them to prepare for a formal hearing in late March.

Pannell on Wednesday expressed frustration over the continuing lack of progress in the talks, and he directed his displeasure at attorneys for the state.

Judge Charles Pannell

Judge Charles Pannell

“You’re going to dump it on the court,” he told Jaime Theriot, an attorney representing Georgia. “The plan is to drag it out as far as you can.”

Theriot said the state has no such plan to delay an agreement. She argued that Georgia has fundamental disagreements with the Justice Department over what is required under a 2010 settlement agreement to improve care for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

A September report by independent reviewer Elizabeth Jones, though, described Georgia’s lack of compliance with the 2010 pact on moving people with developmental disabilities out of state hospitals, along with other gaps in services.

Pannell said at Wednesday’s status conference that he believed “the state of Georgia always has shortchanged people with mental illness.”

Georgia, under the landmark pact, agreed to end all admissions of people with developmental disabilities to state psychiatric hospitals. It also promised that patients with developmental disabilities already in those hospitals would be moved to more appropriate settings by July 2015 — the deadline for the agreement’s provisions to be met.

The settlement agreement also sought to improve care for Georgians with mental illness. Georgia agreed to establish community services and 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.

Both sides have agreed that the state has made tremendous progress in delivering new services to people with serious mental illness.

But Mary Bohan, a Justice Department attorney, said Wednesday that people with developmental disabilities are still not getting the services they need to help them live in their communities.

Theriot said the state does not dispute the numerical targets on hospital discharges. But she said Georgia does object to what she called a federal “attempt to enforce terms that don’t exist in the settlement agreement.”

iStock_000023217379LargeAttorneys for the state, in court filings, noted that since the settlement agreement was signed, Georgia has closed three state hospitals and moved almost 500 people with developmental disabilities into community settings.

About 300 of these people with disabilities remain in state hospitals, said attorney Josh Norris of the Georgia Advocacy Office, representing consumer groups, in a court filing.

Norris said at the Wednesday conference that some people are now languishing in state hospitals instead of getting community services. And Norris said others with developmental disabilities who have been discharged and are living in their communities “are at some level of risk” to their safety.

Fourteen states have closed all state institutions for people with those disabilities, Norris said in his court filing.

The state’s court filing said, “The current dispute is not about avoiding contractual obligations to which the parties mutually agreed in 2010.”

Instead, the state argued, the Justice Department has insisted that Georgia “enter into an entirely new agreement that exceeds the language’’ of the original settlement.

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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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