Ann Akland is the advocacy team leader and past president of the Wake County chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. Wake-NAMI is organizing "Reform the Reform," in Raleigh on Tuesday, May 15, at 1:30 p.m., coinciding with a statewide gathering of disabilities issue advocates. Gathering spot is the mall behind the General Assembly. March route: to the Governor's Mansion to protest the Easley administration's policies and Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom's management.
What are you hoping to accomplish?
People with mental, developmental and substance abuse disabilities and people who care about them will converge on the capital city to raise public awareness and send a strong message to Gov. Easley: When you ran for governor, you wrote about your strong belief that we must "provide meaningful opportunities for, and deliver high-quality services to, all North Carolinians with physical or mental disabilities." You promised to improve the service delivery system, expand educational and employment opportunities and ensure community inclusion. You have broken those promises, failed to provide the leadership requested, and refused to communicate with stakeholders about the problems. You have defended Secretary Hooker Odom rather than intervening, creating a state of emergency for consumers and providers. You have failed to take responsibility for your administration's creating the problems and have demonstrated a lack of leadership for fixing them.
What should the current General Assembly do to fix the problems?
What it can do is pass the mental health insurance parity bill. Passing insurance coverage for mental illness and substance abuse that is comparable to what's required for physical illness will lessen the burden on taxpayers and ensure better care for many people with mental illnesses. Sadly, Secretary Hooker Odom has already demonstrated her unwillingness to work with our elected representatives on mental health reform. That being the case, until a new governor is elected and a new secretary appointed, there is little that can be done by the General Assembly to improve the mental health system itself.
On the insurance parity issue in the House, any members need a nudge?
Several Triangle area representatives are undecided, including Reps. Nelson Dollar and Marilyn Avila, both Wake County Republicans, and Bill Faison, an Orange County Democrat. Our chief sponsor is Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange.
Meanwhile, what about Easley—what are you hoping for from him?
The governor should appoint a small group of independent experts (outside DHHS) to assess the current state of mental health services and develop a plan to get us beyond the current crisis and eventually to a better statewide system.
In light of state policies, and the plan by DHHS to close Dorothea Dix Hospital in 2008, is Wake County doing what it should to see that folks with mental illnesses are properly served?
DHHS failed by making a decision to close Dix and locate the new psychiatric hospital and overflow beds in Butner based on the economic welfare of Granville County rather than on the needs of people with mental illness. To make matters worse, DHHS has not provided sufficient incentives or introduced legislation to require that private hospitals operate psychiatric beds in return for approval of other types of beds—for example, cardiac beds. Such approval would be a major incentive for hospitals across the state, including WakeMed, Rex and Raleigh Duke, to take care of people with mental illness. The Wake County Commissioners have done all that they can by contracting with Holly Hill Hospital for 60 psychiatric beds. But this leaves mentally ill Medicaid patients with no place to go in Wake County. In addition, the commissioners are actively considering building and operating an additional substance abuse treatment facility, which will lessen the need for beds in a psychiatric hospital.