Trial set in federal suit over mental health in Mississippi


MIAMI – FEBRUARY 02: A judges gavel rests on top of a desk in the courtroom of the newly opened Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum February 3, 2009 in Miami, Florida. The museum is located in the only known structure in the nation that was designed, devoted to and operated as a separate station […]

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JACKSON, Miss. — The federal government’s effort to force Mississippi to change its mental health care system is going to trial Tuesday.

The federal government sued Mississippi in 2016 for relying too much on sending people to psychiatric hospitals and other institutions for treatment. Under federal law and court decisions, states are supposed to provide care in the least restrictive setting possible, helping people live at home and not in state mental hospitals or private institutions.

The state says its system is legal and that changes the federal government seeks overstep the authority of a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision that underlies the case. Mississippi’s lawyers say the state isn’t required to offer a system with no unmet needs or gaps in service.

U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves will hear evidence without a jury. The trial in Jackson could go six weeks or longer, and a decision is unlikely before late this year.

In May, the state of Mississippi asked Reeves to throw out the lawsuit, but he rejected those attempts.

Reeves questioned the state’s position. He noted that outside the lawsuit, Mississippi advocates a shift toward community-based case, but takes a different position inside the lawsuit.

“In broad terms, the court assumes that a ‘win’ for the United States is ensuring that Mississippians’ access to mental health care is robust, readily-available, and built on the well-supported best practice of community-based care,” Reeves wrote. “Based on the Department of Mental Health’s publications, it seems this would also be a ‘win’ for the state. The state, however, apparently believes that it can only get this ‘win’ by having a trial and incurring huge costs in attorney’s fees and expenses and passing those costs on to the taxpayers. This is puzzling.”

The state claimed the federal government didn’t have authority to sue under part of the Americans for Disabilities Act that was citied. Reeves rejected that claim. He said the state was relying on one isolated ruling that’s under appeal, adding that there are plenty of legal decisions that say otherwise.

Reeves also noted that the federal government had also accused Mississippi of violating a separate law, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, in its lawsuits, giving it an additional avenue to bring the case.

The judge rejected Mississippi’s argument that the case should be thrown out because the federal government hasn’t done enough to lay out what changes it wants to Mississippi’s mental health system. Reeves wrote that the federal government has basically suggested the state should expand limited community-based services that it already provides. He also ruled that the federal government doesn’t have to lay out a budget for how much that would cost.

“It is not the United States’ responsibility to provide a detailed financial summary of the cost of such accommodations,” Reeves wrote.

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