Pubdate: Thu, 17 Jan 2002
Source: Athens Banner-Herald (GA)
Copyright: 2002 Athens Newspapers Inc
Author: Lee Shearer


Mental Health

An Athens agency that provides services for mentally ill, mentally retarded 
and drug-addicted persons in Northeast Georgia could have its contract 
yanked tonight. But members of a group called the Northeast Georgia 
Regional Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Board may 
instead vote at a special meeting this evening to give troubled Advantage 
Behavioral Health Systems one last chance to shape up.

The group supervises the operations of Advantage, which provides services 
in Athens and nine other surrounding counties, and Gainesville-based 
Georgia Mountains Community Service Board, which provides services to 13 
counties farther north.

The meeting is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. in the Commerce Civic Center.

Advantage, a quasi-governmental agency created when the state changed the 
way it delivers services for mentally ill, mentally retarded and 
drug-addicted persons seven years ago, has a budget of about $24 million 
and more than 500 employees. It has been mired in a series of problems 
since 1998, when a state investigation revealed that some of Advantage's 
employees in Elbert County were taking out life insurance policies on some 
of their mentally handicapped clients, then pocketing the money when the 
clients died. Two people pleaded guilty to fraud in that case.

The agency has also been plagued with problems that include low employee 
morale, bad record-keeping and budget shortfalls, and that has led to 
losses of funding and sometimes questions of inadequate treatment for 
clients, according to outside reviewers.

Most recently, a special review team from the state Department of Human 
Resources -- called in at the request of Advantage administrators -- found 
numerous violations of state policy, some as serious as drugs being 
dispensed by people not licensed to prescribe drugs.

At a series of meetings earlier this month, consumer advocates, former 
employees and an outside expert on this type of service delivery called on 
the Regional Board to end Advantage's contract to provide services, and 
instead call in Georgia Mountains to take over administration of the 10 
counties for which Advantage is now responsible.

At a four-hour meeting last Thursday, however, a number of Advantage 
administrators and other workers asked the Regional Board for another 
chance, arguing that although the agency does have problems, things are 
demonstrably getting better. But others argued that Advantage has had 
plenty of time to fix its problems.

Wendy Parent, an outside reviewer who evaluated the agency in October 2000, 
appeared at last week's meeting to recommend that Advantage be replaced, 
because the same problems keep recurring.

"My recommendation is that the contract be revoked," she said.

But the board may adopt the suggestion of board member Fred Weil, who 
suggested last Thursday that Advantage be given a specific list of 
improvements to accomplish by June 1. If Advantage still can't show 
substantial progress, the contract will be yanked, according to terms of 
his proposal.
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