by Bob Geary
Mental health advocates in Wake County are hoping that a last-ditch, last-month campaign will convince Gov. Bev Perdue to keep Dorothea Dix Hospital open. As things stand, Perdue's Health and Human Services Secretary Lanier Cansler has announced that he has no money to keep Dix operating past the end of 2010, and consequently Dix will cease taking new admissions at the end of November.
About 100 people rallied in a light rain this afternoon near the General Assembly, then marched to the Governor's Mansion to chant "Keep Your Promise!" to Perdue, who was nowhere in evidence.
Is there a chance Perdue will relent? State Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, is among the legislators and local officials fighting to keep Dix open. She spoke at the rally, and afterward I asked her that question. Ross said she was one of three Wake legislators, all Democrats, who met with Perdue nine days ago to discuss the issue. The others were Rep. Jennifer Weiss and Sen. Josh Stein. They made their case, Ross said. And the governor's reaction? Ross smiled gamely. "She didn't seem to be open to our point of view."
The reason is the $3 billion-plus budget gap Perdue is facing come the start of the 2011-12 fiscal year. Ross says Cansler would need $16 million to keep Dix open through June, a cost that could turn out to be a bargain compared to shifting patients from Dix to the state's other mental health facilities in Butner, Goldsboro and Morganton, all of which have had major quality and staffing issues — complete with lawsuits against them. The staff at Dix, by contrast, is considered first-rate.
The issue isn't Dix or no Dix, Ross said. It's that the state has never put in place a sufficient "continuum of care" for people with mental illnesses — meaning there are neither enough new hospital beds to make Dix unnecessary nor are there enough strong community-based alternative treatment facilities to make Dix unnecessary.
Wake's legislative delegation, Democrats and Republicans, are unanimous that unless and until such a continuum of services exists, Dix should stay open, Ross said.
To be fair to Perdue, she inherited the mess that former Gov. Mike Easley left behind after he initiated a so-called health care reform plan a decade ago. Easley's plan failed on two fronts: one, Easley never put the promised funding into it; and two, public programs were privatized, resulting in higher costs for fewer, lesser-quality services.
It would be a fitting memorial to Easley's efforts, I suppose, if the hospital on Dix Hill were to close while the offices of state HHS officials remained there. The campus that Dorothea Dix inspired would no longer be available for people in need; but it would be available for the people getting paid not to meet their needs.
I wouldn't think Perdue would want to be joined that particular Easley legacy, however.