State pledges to fix mental health system

State leaders are beginning to take steps to address problems identified in a Department of Justice investigation into the state's training centers for people with intellectual disabilities.

The Department of Justice last week informed the state it was needlessly institutionalizing people with intellectual disabilities and not providing enough community-based treatment. The department threatened a lawsuit if Virginia didn't make changes.

At Gov. Bob McDonnell's request, House Majority Leader M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights, and Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Norfolk, introduced bills beefing up Behavioral Health and Developmental Services Trust Fund legislation.

Proceeds from selling vacant buildings and land would be used to finance community-based services, including waivers for the intellectually disabled. Waivers pay for services in the community rather than in an institution. That would help transition people from training centers to community-based care.

The bill also directs the secretary of Health and Human Resources to come up with a plan to transition people with intellectual disabilities from state training centers to community-based settings and make biannual progress reports.

"They truly want to make the corrections," said David Coe, executive director of Colonial Behavioral Health, which provides services for people affected by mental illness, intellectual disabilities and substance abuse in Williamsburg, Poquoson and James City and York counties.

"Many of the corrections that the Department of Justice is suggesting, we've known that we've needed to address for some time. It was just a matter of having the funds to do it."

"In tight budget times, sometimes you need additional pressure to move things to the front of the line," Coe said. "This findings letter from the Department of Justice is simply putting forward an additional motivation to do the things that we've known needed to be done anyway."

McDonnell last year proposed $30 million in increased funding for behavioral health and development services, including $9.8 million for 275 more waivers, which provide community-based services to people with mental and intellectual disabilities.

That's "far from adequate," the Department of Justice said, when the state has a waiting list of more than 6,000.

A 2009 study said it would cost $2.4 billion over 10 years to provide waivers for everyone on the list. But it costs more to institutionalize them. The state pays almost $120,000 more per year on average to serve a person in a training center than it does in the community, according to the Department of Justice letter.

The state at this point is not attempting to close training centers, said Keith Hare, deputy secretary of health and human resources.

The federal report has nothing do to with the behavioral health system, but Health and Human Resources is taking a comprehensive look at how the state provides services across the board, Hare said. A recent report on Eastern State Hospital in James City County by the Inspector General for Behavioral Health and Development Services pointed out that a similar lack of community-based services clogged the pipeline of patients awaiting discharge from the inpatient behavioral health facility.

"We won't turn these problems around while Gov. McDonnell is in office," Hare said. "It will take years. This truly is a starting point."

The bills are a "strong statement" to people with family members in training centers that the state will meet their needs, said Jamie Liban, executive director of The Arc of Virginia, an advocacy group for residents with developmental disabilities.

"It was a historic moment for Virginia, in terms of the civil rights for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities," Liban said. "The time is now."

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