State mental health gets takeover reprieve
A U.S. magistrate says the program has been meeting benchmarks
The state mental health system has avoided a threatened federal takeover by moving to complete a plan for community services for the mentally ill, and now faces a June 30 deadline.
State Department of Health officials are delighted with a positive report submitted to the court Wednesday by U.S. Magistrate Kevin Chang on benchmarks for improved community services.
"We created a sound collaboration to move forward to substantial compliance with a community plan in a fashion similar to the successful work we did at Hawaii State Hospital," said Dr. Thomas Hester, chief of the Adult Mental Health Division.
U.S. District Judge David Ezra said on March 23 that he saw "backsliding on all fronts," and he gave the state until last Sunday to complete benchmarks for the community plan or face a federal takeover.
Chang, court-appointed special master in the case, has been critical of the state's slow progress in meeting federally required improvements. He has been concerned particularly about the state hospital's rising population and the system's lack of forensic services.
The federal court is overseeing improvements to the mental health system as a result of a 1991 lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department alleging unconstitutional conditions in treatment of the mentally ill.
The state hospital in Kaneohe was released from the lawsuit in December 2004 because of progress meeting federal requirements. The deadline for the community plan was extended to June 30, with a possibility of further extension to Nov. 30 if necessary.
In his latest report to the court, Chang commended the Mental Health Division and state attorneys "for their focus and concerted effort on the benchmarks and the community plan."
He noted technical assistance provided by Kris McLoughlin, court-appointed special monitor. "Significant work was accomplished by defendants in a short period of time," he said.
Chang encouraged the state Health Department and its mental health division "to maintain the momentum built over the past few weeks and keep up the good work."
Michelle Hill, deputy director for behavioral health administration, said, "We are very pleased with this report by the special master, and I think it says much about the continued collaboration that is so necessary for success to be achieved."
Both Hill and Hester are optimistic that planning for the community mental health system can be completed substantially by June 30. If not, Hill said, "We will be pretty darned close."
Hester said he is proud of the staff's work on the benchmarks and grateful for McLoughlin's "excellent assistance."
Forensic services are one of the top priorities in completing community planning, Hester said. "I would say those being released from Hawaii State Hospital on conditional release are at the front burner. We already have 400 people on conditional release throughout the state."
Hill said the hospital population -- 188 yesterday -- is still higher than desired. The facility is licensed for 190 patients but budgeted for 168.
She said a task force appointed by Health Director Chiyome Fukino is working on better ways to manage transition of patients to the community. They are looking at "approaches to the front door, as well as back-door practices, to relieve the hospital census," she said.
Four houses on the hospital grounds are being converted for a conditional-release program to ease crowding in the facility.