DOJ sues Mississippi, says mentally ill are unnecessarily institutionalized

The federal government emphasized its stance on the importance of using home- and community-based services (HCBS) by filing a lawsuit against the state of Mississippi over its mental health program. The Department of Justice (DOJ) alleged that the state ran afoul of the integration mandate of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (P.L. 101-336) and forced thousands of people to be institutionalized when the services could be provided in a community setting.

Integration mandate and lawsuit

In Olmstead v. L.C., 527 U.S. 581 (1999), the Supreme Court found that the ADA requires public entities to provide services to the disabled in home- and community-based settings as much as possible. The ‘integration mandate’ states, “A public entity shall administer services, programs, and activities in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of qualified individuals with disabilities” (28 C.F.R. section 35.130(d)). According to the Olmstead Court, unnecessary institutionalization diminishes patients’ abilities to interact socially,  pursue education and employment, and find cultural enrichment.

The suit against Mississippi alleges that state-run hospitals are segregating mentally ill patients who could be successful in community treatment. The Justice Department believes that patients are regularly cycling through the state’s four mental health facilities because they are not able to thrive in their communities due to a lack of services. The cuts to the DOMH have limited its ability to offer HCBS services and activities, and State Attorney General Jim Hood expressed his displeasure toward the state legislature following the filing of the suit, blaming them for offering corporate tax cuts instead of serving the population. The state attempted to settle with the federal government, but negotiations failed. The DOJ wants a consent decree, but Hood objects due to expense and perpetual oversight. The state is now in the expensive position of defending itself against the DOJ.

Mississippi budget cuts

The state of Mississippi’s budget woes have turned into what some are calling a crisis, resulting in significant budget cuts. The state government admitted in June that at the close of the state fiscal year, there would be unpaid bills and a $50-60 million shortfall. Although some representatives disagreed on the impact of the amount, overcoming the shortfall would have required collections in the $725-750 million range in the month of June.

Significant budget cuts and dipping into funds failed to ward off the shortfall. Governor Phil Bryant (R) already cut $60 million from the budget and spent $50 million out of state accounts, making use of the Rainy Day Fund. The cuts impacted  state departments, such as the Department of Revenue, which was forced to dismiss temporary workers during tax season. In July, this blog covered some of these budget issues, including an editorial written by the director of the Mississippi Public Health Association that highlighted the Department of Corrections’ generous allocations, nearly nine times more than what the Health Department will be able to use (see Highlight on Mississippi: Budget crisis has health pundits grumbling, July 1, 2016).

Health impacts

Health agencies were not immune to the budget cuts, although there are arguments that they only lost a small chunk of money and, in one case, ended up on top. According to watchdog.org, in the latest round of cuts, the Department of Health (DOH) lost $5.8 million and the Department of Mental Health (DOMH) lost $7.3 million, which amounted to 1.53 percent and 1.17 percent of their budgets, respectively.

Departments heads note that these cuts are only the latest in a line of issues. The Dr. Mary Currier, head of the DOH, said the agency closed six clinics, failed to fill 89 positions, and has cut 64 employees. Diana Mikula, who directs the DOMH, said their reserves are tapped after absorbing a total of $8.39 million in cuts. The agency cut some of its workforce or transferred employees to other positions, but was still forced to eliminate a significant amount of facility space that psychiatrists used to determine if criminals were able to stand trial. Other closures include the Acute Medical Psychiatric Service unit at a state hospital,  Male Chemical Dependency Units, early intervention services, and psychiatric beds.