Mississippi Mental Health Executive Director Wendy Bailey said she will work to carry out a federal order to place more of an emphasis on treating people suffering from mental illness even as the office of Attorney General Lynn Fitch prepares to appeal the ruling.

Mississippi Mental Health Executive Director Wendy Bailey said she will work to carry out a federal order to place more of an emphasis on treating people suffering from mental illness even as the office of Attorney General Lynn Fitch prepares to appeal the ruling.

When asked recently by legislative leaders about a possible appeal of a final remedial order handed down earlier this month by U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, Bailey said, “I feel we are on track to make great progress even over the next 24 months in this area.

“We will comply with the judge’s order and do everything that we need to do as a state agency,” she continued. “As far as the appeal, that would be a question for the Attorney General’s office.”

Last year, Reeves ruled in favor of the U.S. Department of Justice, which had sued the state of Mississippi on allegations it violated federal law by not prioritizing treating mental health patients in community settings when possible instead of placing them in hospitals.

Reeves issued his remedial order earlier this month putting in place a monitor and specific guidelines on how the state should achieve the goal of treating people in community settings. On Monday, Fitch’s office filed a motion asking Reeves to stay portions of his order while it was appealed.

Fitch argues the order would mandate the state spend money not yet appropriated by the Mississippi Legislature and it should be up to the state, not the judge, to determine how to meet the mandates of moving toward providing care in community settings.

“The balance of equities tilts strongly in favor of partially staying the remedial order pending the outcome of the appeal,” the AG’s office wrote in its motion to Reeves.

Reeves’ order provides the state 120 days — until Jan. 5, 2022 — to develop a draft plan, and until March 6 to craft a final plan.

“I can tell you we are committed to providing services in the community and to expanding that,” Bailey said. “We know where we need to go. As the Department of Mental Health, we are going to continue to do that.

“There is still progress to be made and still goals we need to meet. We are dedicated to doing that.”

Bailey, speaking on Sept. 24 at a hearing of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee as it works to develop a budget for the new fiscal year beginning July 1, said the $40 million her agency has received from the federal government as part of COVID-19 relief packages will be used in part to move more toward community treatments.

In addition, Bailey said she anticipates going to the Legislature in January after her agency crafts its draft plan to respond to the judge’s order to request the Legislature appropriate at least a small portion of the $1.8 billion it has received in federal COVID-19 relief funds to help address the issue of moving more mental health care to community settings.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann agreed with Bailey, saying, “we need to do the right thing” regardless of the Department of Justice lawsuit.

Since fiscal year 2012, as the U.S. Department of Justice investigation ramped up, Bailey said the state has reduced spending on institutional care by $70.8 million and increased community-based care by $88.8 million as of fiscal year 2020, which ended on June 30, 2020. For the current year, Bailey said, the agency will divert another $5.8 million from institutional care to the community setting.

The DOJ alleged that the state system often denied patients the opportunity to receive care in their communities and increased the risks of long-term hospitalization of people suffering with mental health issues. In ruling for the federal government, Reeves conceded that the state was moving in the right direction in terms of community care, but that there were still gaps in the state system.

“Mississippi now has intensive community support services in all 82 counties,” Bailey said, adding that 85% of the people now being served are receiving that treatment in the communities.

She said “the continuum of care” provided by mental health hospitals must be maintained for those who need it. But she added, “Most anything and everything we can do to divert from state hospitals and provide services in the community, that is what we are going to do.”

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.