Brewer: Deal ends 30-year-old mental health suit

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX -- Arizona has reached a deal to finally end a lawsuit filed more than 30 years ago challenging the state's funding of mental health services in Maricopa County, Gov. Jan Brewer announced Wednesday.

The agreement will increase housing, employment and other services for the seriously mentally ill in Maricopa County. The state will also provide those services statewide. Among the provisions are an additional 1,200 housing units for the mentally ill population and a commitment to provide employment services for an additional 750 patients.

The deal will not cost extra state funding beyond an extra $39 million a year pumped into the system two years ago as part of an interim deal to end the lawsuit filed on behalf of the mentally ill in 1981. Brewer said the expansion of Medicaid in Arizona that began Jan. 1 will help pay for some of the additional costs.

The class action lawsuit called Arnold v. Sarn has wound its way through the courts for Brewer's entire political career. In the decades since the suit was filed, it has been the subject of numerous legal fights and reviews as the state struggled to follow court orders and earlier compliance agreements. At times, advocates have estimated the cost of compliance in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The agreement has been signed by attorneys for the state and the plaintiffs who brought the lawsuit and was to be filed Wednesday. It is subject to court approval, but both sides said in court papers they were seeking a full dismissal by Sept. 1 that would also allow the case to be revived if the state fails to live up to its part of the bargain.

"We've all worked very closely together and we all agree completely on the requirements and the settlement," Brewer said. "I am just really pleased."

Brewer, who has a son who is seriously mentally ill, has long championed services for those with behavioral health issues.

"I think it took 30-years plus to get resolved though a lot of education and people understanding that we have to take care of this community of people so that they can be restored back to being productive citizens of our community," she said. "And with the integration of the physical health and behavioral health systems they're going to be able to get the kind of care that they really need. They're not being pushed and shoved and forgotten on one end of the ... spectrum."

Anne Ronan, the lead attorney for the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, echoed Brewer in calling the deal a "landmark settlement" that will allow those with mental illnesses to successfully live in the community.

"With the governor's long-standing commitment to persons with serious mental illness, there was a unique opportunity to realize the promise of this litigation— to allow all persons with serious mental illness to live productive lives in the community," Ronan said in a statement.

There are currently nearly 19,000 seriously mentally ill people receiving services in Maricopa County, and the costs to treat many of them are paid by the state's Medicaid program. More are expected to be covered under Medicaid expansion, freeing up state money.

The state has agreed to adopt national quality standards for treatment, and will do annual evaluations of the program's effectiveness. In addition to the new housing and jobs programs, crisis intervention and respite care services, family and peer support and like skills training will be provided for the mentally ill and their families.

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