CHAPEL HILL — Gov. Mike Easley pledged Sunday to fix the state's broken mental health system by the time he leaves office early next year.
In an interview the governor repeated his assertion that his administration "vigorously opposed" a 2001 reform package -- a contention not reflected in written statements by former Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom, who publicly praised the law after it passed.
"All I can tell you is what my secretary told me," Easley said, "that when she was over there negotiating these things that she opposed these items. ... Her concern was, 'This is so sweeping, so broad, without the supports in place, that I just don't see how it's going to work.' "
Easley said he signed the bill, rather than veto it, because it had near unanimous support in the legislature.
A recent News & Observer series showed mental health reforms have wasted more than $400 million on unneeded services and that patient abuse and neglect are widespread in the state's mental hospitals.
The governor repeatedly declined requests for an interview before the series ran. After speaking to the state's editorial page writers in Chapel Hill on Sunday, he gave a reporter a spontaneous 30-minute interview.
"When I tell you [Hooker Odom] was vigorously opposed, I'm telling you what she told me," Easley said. "Is it possible she was over there supporting it the whole time while telling me she opposed it? Sure. But why would she do that? ... I'd just gotten into office. I didn't know enough about the particular issue than to accept what she was telling me."
Reform or bust
Hooker Odom, who now works for a nonprofit think tank in New York, has declined repeated interview requests.
Easley said he recently received a handwritten letter from her explaining why she didn't want to talk. When asked for a copy of the letter, which would be a public record under state law, Easley said he had dumped it in the trash.
"I chunked it," Easley said. "When I read something, unless it's charts or something or budgetary stuff, when I read it I get rid of it. I throw it away."
Easley's account doesn't square with a 2001 letter where Hooker Odom describes herself as helping develop the legislation she presented with "pride and enthusiasm."
By then the bill had become law, Easley said.
"Once something passes, you've got to make it work, and you've got to get out there and convince your people around the state to make it work, that this is good," Easley said. "You can't sit back and complain about it. This passed, let's go out there and make it work."
Issues emerged slowly
Easley said he didn't really become aware there were big problems with the mental health system until last spring.
By that time, serious psychiatric treatment had largely evaporated in parts of North Carolina, while downsized state mental hospitals were increasingly overwhelmed with patients desperate for help.
"I mean, obviously, they don't keep me up-to-date with everything that goes on at any administration, day-by-day, or any agency, and certainly not in mental health," Easley said. "I mean you've got Medicaid, you've got Medicare, you've got the blind, the age disabled, the, you know, hearing impaired. All of these different problems, such a difficult agency. It's amazing anybody would want to take it in."
Easley recalled a January 2007 meeting at the executive mansion where Hooker Odom told him she would be leaving her job the next summer. Even then, Easley said, the crumbling reform effort was not presented to him as a crisis.
"The things I specifically remember her talking about was foster care, college for foster care kids, health care for foster care kids; those are the things that stick out in my mind," Easley said. "Basically what she told me was 'This is difficult, we need to get more control. We're going to continue to work with it the best we can. It's still new.' "
The governor said it was March 2007, maybe April, before his budget advisers told him about tens of millions of dollars in overspending.
"It's when we started looking at the line items," Easley recalled. "Ones were small that should have been large. The ones that should have been large were small. That's when we really got concerned."
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