One of Governor Keating's cabinet secretaries is violating both the spirit and the letter of a new state law in his zeal to hasten the downsizing of Eastern State Hospital in Vinita, according to a state legislator who is currently exploring options to stop the action.
Secretary for Health and Human Services Jerry Regier surprised observers Friday when he revealed his plans to complete the downsizing of the Vinita mental health facility by the end of 1999 -a full year earlier than prescribed in legislation approved by state lawmakers and signed into law by Governor Keating this year.
"The law specifically spells out a time frame and a process for downsizing the hospital, but Secretary Regier has apparently decided to ignore the law in his zeal to wipe Eastern State off the map. I've never seen someone in such a hurry to kick people out of their jobs and put the mentally ill out on the street. He seems determined to do that, even if it means breaking his word and the law in the process," said Senator Rick Littlefield.
SB 149 was designed to address concerns related to the transition from a state-run mental hospital to community-based hospital beds and mental health services. Among other things, the law sets a January 1, 2001 deadline for completion of the transition and requires a series of public hearings throughout the process.
Legislative leaders, officials in the Governor's office and Regier signed off on the proposal, agreeing that there was no reason to rush such a sensitive and complex transition. By spreading the process over two years, officials hoped to give community mental health centers time to prepare for the influx of patients from Eastern State.
"There are some real concerns about whether everyone is ready for this transition to begin. The last thing we want to do is turn mentally ill patients out of Eastern State and return them to a community that isn't ready to receive them," said Senator Littlefield.
"We're talking about people's lives here, not some figures on a balance sheet. If we're going to do this job right and do it with a little compassion, it's going to take time. Apparently, everybody realizes that except Secretary Regier."
The Eastern State downsizing also affects approximately 200 of the 530 state employees at the mental hospital. The transition process spelled out by the new law would have allowed the jobs to be cut through attrition, but under the Regier plan, lay offs will be a necessity.
"We made a commitment to those state employees that we would give them time to find new employment. They served the state and their patients well, and deserve an opportunity to move on to another job. Pulling the rug out from under them, as Mr. Regier has proposed, is unconscionable," said Senator Littlefield.
If Regier continues to ignore the law on Eastern State, the Grove lawmaker said he would consider requesting the formation of a special investigative committee to examine potential legal challenges to stop the action.
"I think we would establish a very bad precedent if we let anyone ignore the law, especially a state bureaucrat who isn't accountable to the people of Oklahoma. Mr. Regier has made it quite clear that he would like to have the final word on this process, but fortunately, that's not the way a democracy operates," said Senator Littlefield.