Feds launch probe of N.C. mental health system

Staff writerNovember 24, 2010 

— The U.S. Justice Department has opened a formal investigation into North Carolina's struggling mental health system, the first step in a process that could trigger a federal edict for sweeping reform.

The probe is the result of a complaint filed in July by the advocacy group Disability Rights North Carolina, which contends that the state is violating the Americans With Disabilities Act for failing to provide proper housing for people with mental illness.

Nearly a decade after the state Department of Health and Human Services closed thousands of beds in government-run psychiatric hospitals as part of a reform effort, more than 6,400 people with severe mental illness are housed in adult care homes scattered across the state, living in sometimes squalid and dangerous conditions.

The mental patients, their care typically paid for with taxpayer money, are often far younger than the elderly residents with whom they are housed. In the last two years, at least four residents with mental illness have been killed by fellow patients who had histories of severe mental illness and violence.

Vicki Smith, the executive director of Disability Rights, said the federal investigation could force the state to take actions to fix the mistakes made during North Carolina’s 2001 reform effort, which has also resulted in people with mental illness routinely languishing for days in emergency rooms because no bed in a psychiatric facility is available.

Word of the federal investigation also comes as the state is debating further cuts to the state’s mental health system and moving to close Dorothea Dix Hospital.

“Now DHHS is going to have to answer a whole series of questions about why mental health reform has failed,” Smith said. “This is huge, from our point of view. Huge.”

The Justice Department informed the state of its pending investigation through a five page letter received by DHHS administrators in Raleigh on Thursday. However, the state department did not publically reveal the news until it issued a three-sentence media release earlier today, hours before the start of the Thanksgiving Holiday.

Renee McCoy, a spokeswoman for the state agency, said there would be no comment beyond the media release, which said the state will “work with the Department of Justice to provide all necessary documents and information in response to the complaint.”

michael.biesecker@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4698

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