Local Politics

Easley Talks About Controversial Mental Health Reform

Posted March 10, 2008 7:33 p.m. EDT
Updated March 10, 2008 11:29 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Mike Easley on Monday defended throwing away a recent handwritten note to him from his former chief of mental health issues that describes why she did not want to talk publicly about the strained system.

"I get it. I read it. I throw it away," he said. "Most documents are not public records. Most written material I receive, I read and discard. I take it in. I got it and I move on."

Easley claims both he and former Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom opposed the 2001 mental health reform bill that decentralized the mental-health system to create a more cost-efficient one that supporters said would serve more patients at a lower cost and provide more choices in services.

The system has been struggling with problems and claims of abuse, however, and the reforms have been slow to bring change.

Some observers charge the governor destroyed a public document when he threw away Hooker Odom's note.

Easley said she was focused on making the law work and that he only signed the measure because it had overwhelming support among state lawmakers.

Odom left the Easley administration last year and hasn't talked publicly about the deteriorating system.

Last week, Easley outlined three areas of immediate reform for which he said he will push in the General Assembly's short session later in the spring. Those changes include more power to him and DHHS to manage the sweeping changes mandated in 2001.

Easley said the lack of authority led to mismanagement that cost the state at least $400 million. And that bothers him most.

"Every dollar wasted is another dollar a needy person doesn't get," Easley said. This is not just a numbers game. This is pain and anguish occurring in someone's life that shouldn't (happen) because the money was wasted."

Executive authority is at the top of his legislative list. but he also wants more accountability from mental health centers and the ability work more directly with local communities.

But with 10 months left in office, is it a realistic goal?

"I think you can make some immediate progress, but it's the long term where most of this would occur. Ten months is a pretty long time."

While he waits for the short session, Easley has taken heat for not dealing with this problem more publicly and for not talking with reporters sooner.

He concedes recent media reports may help him get the changes he wants – changes state lawmakers did not pass last session.