Legislative oversight sought for mental health facilities

The Legislature would create a special committee to look into state-licensed care facilities under a measure considered by the Executive Board Feb. 21.

Sen. Lynne Walz
Sen. Lynne Walz

Fremont Sen. Lynne Walz, sponsor of LR296, said Nebraskans who struggle with persistent and severe mental illness deserve better treatment than they are receiving from facilities that are licensed by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

She said that many facilities across the state are not providing residents with the most basic medical and nutritional needs. However, she said, the DHHS licensure inspection system requires only that up to 25 percent of a random sample of facilities be inspected at least every five years.

Walz said the result is that underperforming facilities can fly below the department’s radar for years. When violations are discovered, she said, the small fines incurred do not reflect the severity of the mistreatment.

This system has led to a crisis in which a resident at a state-licensed facility in Palmer died in September after three days of severe illness, she said.

“The [proposed] committee would investigate the systematic failures of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services in ensuring people with mental illness receive the necessary services and supports in the most integrative setting,” Walz said.

The State-Licensed Care Facilities Investigative Committee would be composed of seven members of the Legislature. The committee would be supplied with staff and have the ability to hire outside legal counsel, consultants and investigators, as well as the authority to hold hearings and issue subpoenas.

Dianne DeLair, senior staff attorney at Disability Rights Nebraska, testified in support of the measure. The incident in Palmer is not an isolated one, she said, calling conditions at several facilities across the state “deplorable.”

The Palmer facility remained open despite repeated violations dating back to 2012, she said, and the state’s actions have been insufficient given that vulnerable people’s lives are in danger.

“That [does not] help that veteran who spent the last hours of her life begging to go the hospital,” DeLair said. “When people start dying, we need to take action.”

Also testifying in support was volunteer Mark Munger, who described the living conditions of the mentally ill man he advocated for in Lincoln at a state-licensed facility. The smell from the communal bathroom was “overwhelming,” he said.

“No one, and I mean no one, should be expected to live like that,” Munger said, “It’s third-world conditions in the world’s richest country.”

Jenifer Roberts Acierno, deputy director of the DHHS division of public health, opposed the measure. She said the department currently receives oversight from several committees of the Legislature as well as the federal government. Findings and recommendations made by those entities are taken seriously, she said.

In addition, Roberts Acierno said, the current inspection process allows time for issues to be corrected before a facility loses its license to operate. That process is especially important for residential facilities, she said, because of limited alternative housing options.

“While the concern resulting in LR296 is understood, the committee and the work called for would be duplicative,” Roberts Acierno said.

The board took no immediate action on the measure.

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