More than a dozen people testified yesterday against changes limiting eligibility for state mental health services — changes that some critics say contributed to a 36 percent rise in deaths among mental patients in 2009 from the year before.
"This deplorable statistic is evidence of our dire situation," said Eileen Uchima, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Hawaii office. "We understand that the state budget is dire, and tough decisions must be made, but we urge you not to make these changes on the backs of extremely vulnerable people."
Uchima as well as several other people criticized the state Department of Health’s budget-cutting decision in July 2009 to halt treatment of new patients for several mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorder and major depression.
The department held a public hearing yesterday after a lawsuit was filed several months ago saying the state failed to follow rule-making procedures prior to making the changes. The lawsuit alleges that procedures require a public hearing before changes are made in eligibility requirements.
The public hearing was held in Honolulu but broadcast through interactive television to several neighbor island sites.
Louis Erteschik, the attorney representing the Hawaii Disability Rights Center in the lawsuit, said by making the changes the state effectively deprived some people on the neighbor islands from receiving services because there are no alternatives.
"It’s really sad to see that happen," he said.
Erteschik said the budget-cutting decision actually created other problems, and he cited the double murder-suicide by former Iraq war veteran Clayborne Conley in August. Conley, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, was released from the state mental hospital early last year.
Erteschik said Conley clearly needed mental treatment but would not have qualified under the changes by the Health Department.
Charles St. Louis, representing the Queen’s Medical Center, said the hospital is in favor of restoring previous services, which included more case managers for the mentally ill. He said the lack of adequate community case management has resulted in a significant increase in the readmission of mentally ill patients within 15 days of discharge.
Written testimony will be received until 4:30 p.m. Monday at the Adult Mental Health Division, HAR 11-175, 1250 Punchbowl St., Room 256, Honolulu 96813.