EDITORIAL: Mentally ill live in squalor under state program

An audit of a state program designed to help the mentally ill reveals that Nevada has a major problem — and it needs to be addressed immediately.

The state Clinical Services Branch within the Division of Public and Behavioral Health receives millions in federal funds to provide various services, including a program to place mentally ill clients in “community homes” intended to provide a modicum of independence. But a legislative subcommittee this week discovered that many such residents were living in squalor.

The Review-Journal’s Ramona Giwargis reported Thursday that auditors found “human waste, rodents, mildew and other filthy conditions” during inspections of 37 of 105 such residences in Nevada. Other problems included untreated blood stains and numerous safety hazards such as broken glass or unsecured medication.

Assemblyman Jim Wheeler, a Gardnerville Republican, was blunt: “I wouldn’t put my dog in these conditions,” he said.

“This is a failure,” said state Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, R-Reno. “Taxpayers are basically paying slumlords to warehouse people with mental illness in unsafe and filthy conditions. I’d never want one of my relatives living in one of these.”

The problem appears to be with both the operators of the community homes and the state workers charged with monitoring them.

For instance, the auditors found that state officials routinely failed to document issues in their official reports. In addition, division officials apparently failed to follow procedures for certifying the residences. Meanwhile, the operators of the homes — who pocket $1,450 a month in state and federal tax dollars for each resident — were only too happy to take advantage of the lax oversight. Some homes, Ms. Giwargis reports, housed six or seven patients. Auditors found children living in at least two of the residences.

While some might view the findings as evidence of the dangers of privatizing government services, the breakdown actually reflects the work of an unaccountable, indifferent or incompetent bureaucracy. There can be no disputing that operators of these dwellings bear plenty of responsibility. But had state officials been more diligent in ensuring that taxpayer money was being used as intended — and had taken more seriously their duty to stay on top of conditions in these homes — this could have been avoided.

Assemblyman Wheeler raised the possibility of a criminal investigation into operators who clearly failed taxpayers and their mentally ill clients yet profited handsomely. That’s a good place to start. State officials must also ramp up scrutiny of the community homes and ensure inspectors do more than just go through the motions. Homes that repeatedly have compliance issues should be closed and their operators prohibited from participating in the program.

Amy Roukie, who recently took over as administrator of the Division of Public and Behavioral Health, insisted that her outfit had made improvements and implemented safeguards to ensure that conditions improve. Taxpayers should expect no less. And they deserve a more thorough explanation as to why division bureaucrats for so long turned a blind eye to the indefensible.

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