Even though he was the chief architect of the plan to close Eastern State Hospital in Vinita, Health and Human Services Secretary Jerry Regier is trying to dodge responsibility for recent problems associated with the shutdown. That according to a state lawmaker who has repeatedly cautioned Regier about moving too quickly to close the mental health facility.
"From day one, Jerry Regier has been out front, pushing to close Eastern State as quickly as possible, whether or not the community centers were ready to handle all the patients. Now that the transition has gotten off track and generated some negatives headlines, he's trying to cover himself
by pointing the finger of blame at everyone else. Instead of accepting personal responsibility for a mess he helped make, he's ducking and dodging," said Senator Rick Littlefield, whose Senate district includes Eastern State.
The state is currently in the process of shutting down the hospital and moving its patients to community mental health centers - a plan long pushed by Governor Keating and Secretary Regier.
In a published report about ongoing problems with the shutdown Wednesday, Regier attempted to distance himself from the issue and shift blame to two oversight panels involved in the transition, even though those panels are "advisory" only and have little authority in the process.
In reality, the main entities charged with implementing and overseeing the Eastern State downsizing are Regier and the State Mental Health Department that he oversees as a gubernatorial cabinet secretary.
"Trying to push responsibility off on a couple of advisory panels that have no real power is really a stretch. That's like a head coach trying to blame the cheerleaders for his bad coaching decisions. Mr. Regier and his people dropped the ball on this one, but they just don't want to admit it," said Senator Littlefield.
Since the Governor and Regier first proposed closing Eastern State, legislators and mental health advocates have repeatedly warned them about the dangers of moving too quickly to close the mental hospital.
In August of 1999 after the Governor's plan was approved, Senator Littlefield called Regier on the carpet for again attempting to speed up the process and close the Vinita facility prematurely. Regier was pushing for closure by January 1 of 2000, even though state law stipulated that it not take place until 2001.
At a subsequent hearing before a legislative oversight committee, Regier was asked to respond to concerns that community programs were not ready to handle the influx of patients that would result from such a speedy transition. Regier downplayed those questions, telling the oversight panel that the process could be expedited without any problems.
"Services will appear when the need has arisen and funding begins to flow to the communities. Then the services there will be enhanced," said Regier (Tulsa World, 8-28-99).
Ironically, the recent problems with the Eastern State closing have revolved around a Tulsa mental health facility's apparent inability to deal with the influx of mental patients.
" What we're dealing with now is the same kind of crisis situation that Secretary Regier assured everyone would not happen. When we warned him about potential problems, his attitude was 'don't worry about it.' Now that the problems have materialized, he wants to run and hide. I think it would be a lot more productive if he just took responsibility for his management mistakes and worked to correct them," said Senator Littlefield.