DHR commissioner says settlement will cost money

ATLANTA (AP) - Georgia's social service chief told state legislators Friday that privatizing the state's troubled psychiatric hospitals is not a done deal.

"The issue of privatization is not a given or a panacea," state Department of Human Resources Commissioner B.J. Walker said at a state Capitol budget hearing on Friday.

Mental health advocates and several state legislators have expressed misgivings about the department's plans to turn over some of the state's mental health services to private operators. They worry that private providers will be more interested in their bottom line than in the quality of care.

Still, Walker said Friday that she had sent out request for proposals from private companies. Whether the state proceeds in that direction depends on what they hear back.

Georgia is cutting about $2 billion in spending to close a huge budget gap and the state's mental health system has not been spared from the cuts.

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has proposed a $19.2 billion amended budget for the current fiscal year, down from $21.2 billion, and a $20.2 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

The state recently entered into a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in which it pledged to improve conditions at state facilities.

An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution concluded that abuse, neglect and poor medical care contributed to 136 mental health patient deaths from 2002 through 2007. Last May, the Justice Department cited Georgia's "unabated" failure to address dangerous conditions in state mental hospitals that have caused preventable deaths, injuries and illnesses.

In the first year of the settlement, the state must address several safety problems at the hospitals, including assaults and choking. Walker said corrective action had already been taken on these issues. But some of the broader improvements required by the Justice Department as part of the five-year agreement will require an infusion of cash.

"We know probably we will need some type of resources at some point," Walker said. "But we have not calculated what that should be."

State legislators worried that with the state making cuts to mental health services it will be difficult to comply with the federal settlement.

"We're making cuts yet in the Justice Department settlement are offering to provide more services. I don't see how we reconcile that," said state Sen. Johnny Grant, a Republican from Milledgeville.

Others called on the state to do more to do more to help the mentally ill, who are often relegated to the shadows.

"For too long we have dealt with it by saying these people don't exist. They do exist," said state Rep. Bobby Parham, a Milledgeville Democrat.