New talks delay contempt hearing in Georgia mental health case

Federal authorities were prepared this week to argue that Georgia was in contempt of court because it missed deadlines to overhaul the state's mental health system.

Instead, the Department of Justice has begun new talks with state officials, and both sides hope to reach an agreement by early May.

U.S. District Judge Charles Pannell delayed a hearing that was scheduled for Monday after lawyers for the state and federal governments said they needed more time for “meaningful and productive conversations.” The hearing was rescheduled for May 9.

The lawyers said they hope to reach a new settlement agreement that would update the one from 2010 that called for major changes in Georgia's mental health system by mid-2015. A court-appointed monitor would continue to oversee the state's progress.

The 2010 agreement resolved a federal investigation that began after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed that more than 100 patients from state psychiatric hospitals had died under questionable circumstances between 2002 and 2007. The newspaper articles detailed abuse, neglect, substandard medical care and other horrific conditions in the state facilities.

But the deadline for corrections came and went last year with much work still undone. For example, the state had promised to move nearly 700 patients with developmental disabilities out of psychiatric hospitals into community settings by July 1, 2015. But more than 200 such patients remain in the hospitals. If it continued at the current pace, the Justice Department recently argued, the state would still be transferring patients 19 years from now.

Federal lawyers told Judge Pannell they are working to get the state to agree to transfer developmentally disabled patients “at a reasonable pace and in a safe and effective manner.” Federal authorities want the state to take special care with high-risk patients with complicated medical or behavioral issues.

The joint filing noted that state officials say they “have already undertaken, or are preparing to undertake, many of the activities the (Justice Department) has proposed.”