JACKSON, MISS– The spending habits of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health were under scrutiny during budget hearings at the state capitol on Tuesday.
Nursing homes operated by DMH do not require that the resident has a mental illness in order to make use of the nursing home services, a point which was questioned by the members of the panel.
“Many families come to us with their loved ones because they hear about our services,” said DMH Director Diana Mikula. “Or they’ve had behavioral problems at another facility and we have the expertise in that area.”
DMH is also charged with the responsibility of providing forensic services–mental evaluations for those awaiting trial. Currently, there are only 15 beds available for those needing a court ordered mental evaluation prior to trial.
“The wait time for an evaluation,” said Mikula. “Is 11 months.”
Speaker of the House Philip Gunn asked if those residents without mental illness could be moved to private care facilities, and those spaces be retrofitted to expand the space for those awaiting a mental evaluation.
“It would cost millions of dollars,” said Adam Moore, Communications Director for MDH. “These buildings date back to the 30’s and 50’s. To make them secure for that use would be in the millions.”
The main focus of the budget hearing turned to the Department of Justice lawsuit against the state for its failure to provide community-based mental health programs. MDH received $16.1 million towards expanding community-based care.
When asked if the legislators had done enough to help with starting those programs, Mikula said it was a good-faith effort that came late– the Department of Justice had been working with the state regarding the complaints in the lawsuit since 2010.
“Explain to me,” said Senator Brice Wiggins, “why when legislation was introduced to prevent something like this lawsuit, your agency lobbied against it.”
Wiggins referred to a bill introduced two years ago that would have created a task force to study and address the needs of the Department of Mental Health. Mikula said the DOJ had started the investigation when the legislation was introduced.
“We were advised that a study group would lead to discovery for the Department of Justice,” said Mikula.
Wiggins responded, “Well here we are two years later getting sued.”
Lt. Governor Tate Reeves questioned the department on its spending habits. Salary expenses are expected to increase by $10 million, but the agency received a four percent budget cut in the last legislative session.
“How can we say it’s a budget cut,” said Reeves. “When you’re spending $14 million more than last year?”
Mikula explained that the point of salary increases was retention.
“Right now, starting pay for those working with these individuals.. making a difference,” said Mikula. “Is at $16,000.”
The turnover rate for employment with MDH is at 48 percent, which Mikula credited to the low starting wages.