While on the face of it it is a good sign that Georgia is finally doing something to address this horrible issue, it is outrageous that it takes people dying, a federal investigation and a investigative piece from the AJC to make this happen.
Having an ombudsmen and advocates for the most helpless of our residents is a good idea and should have been in place years ago. But to do it because mentally ill Georgians and our children who are dependent on on the state are being killed and abused points to a much deeper problem.
Why is it that we as Georgians do not care about the most helpless of our residents? That we do not demand that we fund programs and monitor the well being of those who are being cared for? That we are shocked to learn that people are dying and being abused in state facilities then start blaming the “state” and even the victims for the issue?
What is this really about for us? It is time for a reality check and to look in the mirror.
OUR OPINIONS: Overdue advocacy
First-time funding for a mental health ombudsman is a lifesaving development
By Mike King
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 04/10/08
Mentally ill Georgians who depend on the state for services may finally be getting the advocate they need.
In one of its few real accomplishments, the 2008 General Assembly revamped the ombudsman’s office it created in 2000 to oversee the quality of services delivered in the state’s seven mental hospitals and community mental health system. Legislators also authorized creation of an independent medical review panel to investigate unexplained deaths at the state’s mental hospitals —- a much-needed step to move beyond the cursory reviews now performed by the Department for Human Resources, which runs the hospitals.
The ombudsman’s post had been dormant since 2000 because it had never been provided funds to get started. This year the Legislature appropriated $250,000 to fund the office, as well as to pay for the new fatality review process.
An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation revealed last year that from 2002 through 2006, there were 115 suspicious deaths at state mental health hospitals —- many of which could have been prevented had hospital wards not been overcrowded and understaffed. The deaths continued in 2007, with 21 suspicious fatalities, the newspaper reported, even while the U.S. Justice Department was launching an investigation into whether Georgia was violating the civil rights of hospitalized mental patients.
The new medical review board will function much like one already in place to examine the fatalities of children in the state’s foster care system. It is empowered to review all deaths at state hospitals and community residential facilities, including those of residents who had been discharged from state-run or sponsored facilities within two weeks of their death.
The panel will provide a quarterly summary of its findings to the ombudsman, identifying any trends that might improve the quality of care and reduce the risk of death. Those reports will be considered public records, available for anyone to see.
The ombudsman will serve a five-year term. The first task will be to establish a formal complaint process so that quality-of-care and other disputes can be resolved. The office will also be required to file an annual report documenting the types of complaints and other problems raised by consumers and recommending changes in policy, regulation and administration for the governor and Legislature to consider.
The General Assembly’s decision to provide funds and power to the ombudsman may end the indifference to mental health issues. The sad fact is that, had the state acted sooner, lives could have been saved. Perhaps the new ombudsman will be in a position to convince legislators that more and better-targeted spending is needed in the state’s troubled mental health system.
—- Mike King, for the editorial board (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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