DES MOINES | Gov. Terry Branstad is proposing an institutional realignment that would phase out services provided at mental health institutions in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda – a change that is drawing immediate opposition from “shocked” legislators in the affected communities.

The budget plan Branstad presented to the Legislature on Tuesday did not include money to continue providing services for the mentally ill beyond July 1 at the two targeted facilities. Branstad favors taking better advantage of community providers, mental health redesign and the two accredited mental health institutions in Cherokee and Independence, according to Branstad spokesman Jimmy Centers.

“The challenge of attracting key clinical professionals, particularly psychiatrists, to these facilities along with an increased focus on community-based care made this the appropriate time to act,” Centers said in a statement that noted Iowa’s four mental health institutions have operated for nearly a century.

Sen. Rich Taylor, D-Mount Pleasant, said the news “blindsided” him, his hometown, the affected state employees and the patients being served at the state institutions.

“It’s ridiculous. I think this is very short-sighted of the governor,” said Taylor. “I have no intentions of signing off on that. I’m hoping we can get enough legislative pressure applied to make this not happen.”

The realignment, recommended by Chuck Palmer, director of the state Department of Human Services, “will not begin by abruptly moving patients off campus, rather by ceasing admissions beginning in February,” Centers said. “Most patients on these campuses stay only for a short term. As they leave the institution, new patients will instead be served in their communities or by the accredited mental health campuses in Cherokee and Independence.”

DHS spokeswoman Amy Lorentzen McCoy said department officials traveled to Clarinda and Mount Pleasant on Wednesday to discuss the proposed changes. She said they are not a reflection on services being provided at the institutions but rather brought on by the “changing landscape” of mental health service delivery.

Currently, the Clarinda facility, which opened in 1888, has 24 patients and 76 full-time employees, with a projected operating cost of $8.6 million in fiscal year 2016. The Mount Pleasant institution, which opened in 1861, has 47 patients and 83 full-time employees, with a projected FY 2016 budget of $6.9 million, McCoy said.

A timeline for the proposed closure has not been set, she added.

The planned realignment would apply only to the mental health institutions and would not affect correctional facilities at the Clarinda and Mount Pleasant campuses, which will continue operating their combined 1,749 beds, Centers said. Additionally, the proposed changes would not affect the substance abuse, vocational rehabilitation or Clarinda Youth Academy programs at the Clarinda campus, he added.

Rep. Dave Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant, co-leader of the House-Senate budget subcommittee on health and human services, said the “news will be upsetting to many people” because it appeared the governor was making a “unilateral” budget decision without including lawmakers, which he considered to be the wrong approach.

“I think the best way to move on this issue and to respect the budget process is to wait and see whether or not the Legislature accepts the governor’s recommendations that he’s made. And then when that decision’s reached and we say, ‘Yes, Governor, we agree that the $7 million in savings is warranted and we support your closing of the institutions,’ then it begins to phase out. Not now. I think that’s the wrong approach. I just think it’s a violation of the budgetary process,” Heaton said.

Sen. Amanda Ragan, D-Mason City, who co-chairs the legislative budget subcommittee with Heaton, said the panel will begin budget hearings next week and intends to call in Palmer and other decision-makers to discuss the impact on residents and other concerns.

Ragan said not having the money to fund the operations in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda will create a $16.5 million problem in the spending plan the governor offered to lawmakers. “We’re starting the budget hearings next week, and we’ll certainly have that as a large piece of this. It’s a big change.”

Danny Homan, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61, issued a statement that the well-being of the clients who rely on DHS facilities must come first in any decision about those facilities’ future.

He expressed concern that Branstad administration officials were proceeding to close facilities without first seeking the opinion of clients' families, legislators, community leaders, employees or his union.

“The fact that this proposal was quietly tucked into a large budget book without explanation and not even mentioned by the governor in his Condition of the State speech is yet another failure of the governor to live up to his promises of a transparent and open government,” Homan said. “Such a drastic recommendation that will impact the care of some of the most vulnerable Iowans should have not been reached behind closed doors.”

Former Gov. Chet Culver's administration reviewed the mental health institution system and looked at closing state institutions, but the plan stalled due to opposition from legislators, union officials and community leaders.

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