More Links in Health Programs

State Mental Health Advocacy Plan Draws Fire

2 Jan 2002

By Jodie Snyder and Susie Steckner

Arizona health officials have shut down a watchdog group that monitors state programs for the mentally ill and will do their own policing.

Though the group was funded by the Department of Health Services, it operated independently to ensure fair treatment for people with serious mental illness. The state says it can do a better job with its new human rights office, and save money.

Some local advocates are cautiously optimistic; others aren't so sure.

"It's the fox guarding the hen house," said Sue Davis, executive director of the Arizona Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

Meanwhile, another watchdog group for people with mental illnesses, a state-mandated Human Rights Committee, has limped along for months trying to hammer out operating rules with the state. The group is now ready to go, but has no funds to operate.

Advocates say both groups are essential to make sure that ValueOptions, a for-profit national mental-health firm, fulfills its $200 million contract to care for the Valley's indigent mentally ill adults and children. Both the firm and state have repeatedly come under fire for not providing care.

The watchdog groups help clients navigate the complex mental health system and review all incidents involving clients, including deaths.

But both groups have foundered.

The Scottsdale-based Council of Disability Advocates serves as the state's human rights office. It has been chronically underfunded and overwhelmed by people needing help because it serves both the mentally ill and people with developmental disabilities.

In 2001, 14 advocates served more than 400 clients with serious mental illnesses, and fielded more than 5,000 calls for mental health-related information.

Members of human rights committees in Maricopa and Pima counties were critical of the council's work, saying that its state contract was vague and thus the services were inadequate.

The committees wanted health department Director Catherine Eden to rewrite the contract and keep the office independent from the state, but those recommendations were rejected.
The council's contract ended Monday, and the state's new internal human rights office opens July 1. The state will run an interim operation in the meantime.

The new Office of Human Rights will have a staff of 11, including an attorney and advocates, with one just for children. The office will serve clients around the state.

Health department officials acknowledge concerns about possible conflict, but say having an attorney on staff brings built-in ethics and integrity. Further, the state says having the office in house makes sense because it already is charged with overseeing ValueOptions and its care.

"We don't see this as conflicting, we see this as part of the oversight role," said Margery Sheridan, chief of the grievance and appeals bureau.

Mary-Jean Palmer, chairwoman of the Scottsdale council's board of directors, doesn't buy that.

"Our advocates could be as nasty as they needed to be to get the job done but not worry about losing their jobs," she said.

A court-appointed monitor's office for mental health services will watch the state-run operations closely, staff member Nancy Diggs said.

"They have promised consumers (clients) that this will work, and we are going to hold them to it," she said.

Tami Johnson, a staff attorney with the Arizona Center for Disability Law, said her group is "cautiously optimistic." The new office could save money and provide better service, particularly with an on-staff attorney, she said.

As the state works to get its new office open, the Human Rights Committee is ready to begin. Volunteer members expect to review as many as 500 client reports weekly and will make recommendations to state health officials, chairwoman Sherri Walton said.

The committee wants a budget to pay for copies, secretarial work and possibly consultants. While the committee is mandated by state law, there's no funding. Sheridan wants the committee to submit a budget for consideration.

The committee is also under the rule of the heath department, raising concerns about its effectiveness by former chairwoman Alicia Tocco, who quit this month over the issue.

"That's like making the FAA part of American Airlines," Tocco said.

Copyright 2002, Used with permission from The Arizona Republic.

Donate Now

Sign Up For Email

Please sign up below for important news about the work of The Carter Center and special event invitations.

Please leave this field empty
Now, we invite you to Get Involved
Back To Top