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Feds Concerned About Conditions in GA Psychiatric Hospitals

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, January 29, 2010

The U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has filed a motion for immediate relief to "protect the health and safety of hundreds of patients from dangerous conditions" in seven state-run psychiatric hospitals in Georgia, federal officials announced today.

The motion, filed late Thursday, seeks appointment of a monitor who will set targets and timetables for reducing the number of residents at the hospitals, and expand community-based services.

"States responsible for the care of individuals living in state-run facilities have a duty to protect them from harm," said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general in charge of the Civil Rights Division. "Individuals in Georgia's hospitals are being subjected to a widespread pattern of violence and are not being protected from preventable deaths. We need quick action to protect these individuals."

In response to the charges, Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Frank Shelp said in a prepared statement, "We have always preferred that people be served in communities where possible and that they should receive safe and effective care while in hospitals. What we disagree with is the notion that change can happen overnight or that there's no role for hospital care for those who need it and want it. We're busy building a continuum of care to best serve the people of Georgia in the appropriate places. The DOJ's motion, if adopted, would divert resources and endanger that progress."

Last year, Georgia and DOJ entered into an agreement to ensure that the patients were served in the most appropriate settings and that reported unlawful conditions in the hospitals were fixed. A federal judge has yet to approve the agreement.

DOJ said conditions at the hospitals continue to be dangerous and that hundreds of patients who could be placed in the community remain institutionalized and exposed to danger. "Georgia continues to fail to serve patients in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs, and preventable deaths, suicides, and assaults continue to occur with alarming frequency in the hospitals," DOJ said in a media release.

In his statement Friday, Shelp said his agency will "continue to improve and we're in the middle of major changes. Already the people we serve are safer are getting better care. What we need now is the resources and time to continue. Governor Perdue has provided us the resources. But this lawsuit by the Department of Justice would deny us the critical time we need.

"We've cooperated with the Department of Justice, we've invited them into our hospitals to make recommendations, and we've worked diligently to fulfill our settlement agreement. We will continue improving our hospitals because it's the right thing to do. But we will dispute every allegation in this motion with facts and law," he added.

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