By Rose Hoban
Throughout the debate over what to do with the campus of the old Dorothea Dix Hospital, mental health advocates have argued that some, if not all, of the proceeds from the sale of the property should go to pay for improvements to the mental health system.
On Thursday morning, Gov. Pat McCrory signaled to that community that their pleas had been heard. In announcing new negotiations between the City of Raleigh and the state to finalize a plan for the Dix property, McCrory said revenue from the sale or lease should be allocated to the mental health system.
When asked what part of the money would go to fund mental health, the governor replied, “All of it.”
“If you’ve seen some of my cost expenditures in mental health, and also health and human services, we need the money – there’s no doubt about it,” McCrory said. “And our facilities are in very, very bad shape.”
McCrory also said part of the plan tentatively includes using about 30 acres to create a Department of Health and Human Services campus to replace aging state offices. Currently, many DHHS offices are housed in old Dix buildings and other services and offices are in buildings scattered throughout the Raleigh metropolitan area.
Advocates in the mental health community were cautiously optimistic, saying they’d heard a lot of promises before.
Ann Akland, head of the Wake County chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, said she didn’t think there was a considerable need for big buildings to serve the mental health community.
“I think it’s time to really invest in community mental health services,” Akland said.
“I’m still jumping up and down about group homes,” she said. “They haven’t put any money into group homes, funds are being taken out of psychiatric medications in the Senate budget, there are reductions in Medicaid and the whole managed care organization system for mental health is a mess.”
Akland noted that the state is currently wrapping up work on a new Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro and renovations at Broughton Hospital in Morganton. She said she was more interested in things that don’t require as much infrastructure.
“Community services, housing … that’s where the money needs to go, not to buildings,” Akland said.
Legislative green light needed
This new arrangement would preempt a land deal between the state and the City of Raleigh inked in the last days of Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration in a move criticized by legislative leaders.
Both the House and the Senate have introduced bills to override the agreement signed by Perdue and Raleigh city leaders in December. McCrory’s current proposal would require both chambers of the General Assembly to sign off on any new arrangement.
“All of [the money] should go toward mental health, all to mental health,” said Sen. Tommy Tucker (R-Waxhaw), a member of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services who’s been outspoken on mental health issues.
“That’s the mission of the property originally,” he said, “and if that doesn’t happen, it’s a no-deal for me.”
Tucker harkened back to a $51 million mental health trust fund created in 2001 to create community services that was raided by former Gov. Mike Easley to meet a budget shortfall.
“My ideal would be a mental health trust fund that could not be raided and could only be used for mental health purposes, since it’s revenue off that property and the mission of that property was mental health,” Tucker said.
But he maintained that funds should only be used for capital projects.
Meanwhile, other political considerations may gum up the nascent deal.
“We appreciate that the governor and Raleigh mayor are attempting to make things right for the taxpayers of North Carolina and the state’s mentally ill,” wrote Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Eden) in a statement.
“But it is difficult to understand why they are extending an unlawful lease. This proposed agreement delays doing the right thing until 2014 – why not do the right thing today?”