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Albany city officials host mental health forum

Commissioner Frank Berry discusses impact of state hospital closures in Georgia

Frank Berry, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, addresses a full crowd at Phoebe East Convenient Care at a mental health forum on Tuesday. The main topic was the impact of state hospital closures. (Staff Photo: Jennifer Parks)

Frank Berry, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, addresses a full crowd at Phoebe East Convenient Care at a mental health forum on Tuesday. The main topic was the impact of state hospital closures. (Staff Photo: Jennifer Parks)

ALBANY — The closure of state hospitals in Georgia and the anticipated impact was the focus of discussion at a forum concerning mental health issues at Phoebe Putney East Convenient Care on Tuesday.

The guest speaker was Frank Berry, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.

After giving some background on his time in public service, Berry made a note of his observations regarding the Albany area’s view of community service and how it pertains to behavioral health services.

“There is a long history in this community of helping people,” he said. “I believe when you come to a community that embraces helping people, this will be an easy talk. That doesn’t mean we will agree on everything.”

Planning came about for the forum after it became evident following a retreat attended by city commissioners and state delegates that communication was needed between state officials and the Southwest Georgia public. The most recent forum hosted by the city before Tuesday took place in September, which featured Avery Niles, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice.

This was the second forum focusing on behavioral health. Among those in attendance included state Sen. Freddie Powell-Sims, D-Dawson, state Rep. Gerald Greene, R-Cuthbert, state Rep. Carol Fullerton, D-Albany, and Albany city commissioners Ivey Hines and Jon Howard.

“Mental health is something all of us need to know about, some of us more extensively than others,” said Sims during her opening remarks.

The primary focus Tuesday was on how adjustments will be made for the closure of state hospitals, specifically, how those who have relied on such facilities will be taken care of. This included discussion concerning the behavioral health crisis centers coming to Albany, Thomasville and Valdosta to help make up for the closure of Southwestern State Hospital in Thomasville anticipated at the end of the year.

“Southwestern was one of our top performers, but (patients) had to travel long distances (to get there), so they lost touch with their local resources,” Berry said. “(The centers are being) established with the money that would have funded the hospitals.”

The closure of state hospitals is coming following a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that mandated all those with developmental disabilities be moved out of the facilities.

Background on the issue is traced back, Berry said, to the Olmstead decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999, which held that it was illegal to keep those in a long-term care facility who could otherwise participate in the community locked up — and instead keep them in the “least restrictive environment,” which does not necessarily mean they are roaming the streets freely.

“If they are no longer at risk to others and can and want to live in the community, they have a right to live independently,” he said.

Several years ago, the Justice Department began keeping a close watch on Georgia’s state hospitals. An investigation determined the conditions were unacceptable, and a lawsuit was filed. Pieces of the settlement coming out of that suit have been worked out since, and it is expected to close out early next year, the commissioner said.

“People have heard that the hospitals are bad, and folks are asking: ‘Why are they closing the hospitals, they are wonderful.’ They are wonderful because they have had a tremendous amount of oversight,” Berry said. “They have had a tremendous amount of resources and oversight. The General Assembly has helped to gather resources to get the hospitals up to par.”

Some time later, indications were there were many people — some after several decades — wishing to get out of the system but were unable to due to a shortage of resources. The Justice Department filed another suit, ultimately resulting in the settlement under which people have begun to move out of the state hospitals and into host homes in an effort to help them live a life of recovery.

The behavioral health crisis center in Albany is being created with an additional $5 million to expand infrastructure and mental health services at the Dougherty County Mental Health Outpatient Center on Eleventh Avenue, resulting an increased capacity from 24 beds to 30 beds, six temporary observation beds and the addition of 20 jobs.

In addition, Berry said it is expected that such facilities will keep patrol cars from carrying people long distances to get to where they need to go and that hospital emergency rooms will not be congested with people who would be better served elsewhere — thereby freeing up two entities that have often seen what has come out the shortage of resources closer to the homes of those who need it.