Harrison County

‘It was almost too late.’ Should Gulf Coast Mental Health board resign?

Commissioners on the Gulf Coast Mental Health board should resign after presiding over the community agency’s near financial collapse in August, a Harrison County supervisor and a leader in South Mississipp’s mental health field say.

“We came within inches of losing the mental health services to this county,” Marlin Ladner, president of the Harrison County Board of Supervisors, told the Sun Herald. “ . . . It was almost too late and it would have been too late without the intervention of the state mental health people. The consequences would have been tremendous without having mental health services for our citizens.”

Ladner recently made a motion to ask for the resignation of Harrison County’s board member, Laura Hasty, and requests other boards of supervisors ask their appointees to resign, too. The motion died for lack of a second.

Fellow supervisor Beverly Martin said supervisors failed to take Hasty up on an earlier offer to resign. Martin said GCMH needs Hasty’s experience as the agency struggles to survive and commissioners try to find new management.

Psychologist Julie Teater, who handles involuntary psychiatric commitments for the mental health region GCMH covers, said it’s “scary” that the same commissioners interviewing chief executive officer and chief financial officer candidates failed to act when management and financial problems first surfaced.

Teater has started an online petition drive headed, “Fire the mental health commissioners now!” She has so far gathered 48 signatures and plans to present the petition to boards of supervisors in member counties. GCMH is one of 15 regional organizations in Mississippi responsible for community mental health services.

GCMH member Pearl River County has decided to join the Pine Belt region in Hattiesburg on Oct. 1, leaving Harrison, Hancock and Stone counties in the GCMH region.

Teater, paid by member counties to handle commitments, realizes speaking out could cost her work.

“There are some things that are more important than how much they are going to pay me,” Teater said. “We’ve got to fix the system.

“I think GCMH is your backstop for everything. If it falls apart, a significant number of our severely mentally ill patients won’t have treatment.”

GCMH treats patients on a sliding scale and accepts Medicaid. The agency offers an array of services, including inpatient crisis stabilization, group homes, drug and alcohol dependency treatment, case management, and services for children with developmental or behavioral problems.

“We need community services for patients,” Teater said. “There’s a significant percentage of people who just fall through the cracks for whatever reason. We’re bursting at the seams, even in the private system.”

A Sun Herald review of GCMH records revealed that financial deficiencies in the agency were cropping up by early 2018. In December 2018, commissioners were discussing staff pay cuts to save money, and voted to forgo their free lunch and mileage for meetings.

Hasty, co-owner of The Ad Group in Biloxi, has served on the board since April 2016, while Hancock representative Candy Murphy has been a commissioner for more than 20 years. Lynn Stokes serves as Stone County’s commissioner.

GCMH commissioners went to supervisors in June with financial problems. In July, the agency announced it would run out of money and close by Aug. 11. The counties and state Department of Mental Health have stepped in to shore up GCMH, but its longterm survival remains uncertain.

The agency is currently spending $175 an hour for consulting services from retired mental health executive Mike Zieman, who is being paid through his former employer, Memorial Hospital, under an agreement with Harrison County.

Commissioners were not getting straight answers from the previous administration, Hasty said. She said she is working seven days a week without charge on GCMH issues and is committed to helping the agency.

“I accepted this, good or bad,” she said. “I’m not a quitter. I want to do what I can to help. A lot of people are saying I need to be removed. Well, what is that going to accomplish? Somebody else comes in who doesn’t understand things and it takes them a couple of years to get it.”

“It’s just a lot of work . . . I’ve got people close to me who deal with mental health. I’ve seen how it affects families and children. I’m passionate about it. I’m not saying I have the answer. I’m just doing what I can as a citizen.”