FEMA takes back $4.5M Mspi wanted for mental health facilities

Published 10:52 pm Saturday, August 11, 2007

The government has taken back $4.5 million in funding left over from an expired counseling program even though Mississippi coast officials sought the funds for local public mental health facilities.

FEMA spokesman Eugene Brezany said government officials interpret a rule in the Stafford Act, which governs FEMA’s response to disasters, as meaning that they will not provide or assist with mental health treatment in any way for disaster victims.

Some Mississippi health officials said FEMA had devised a post-disaster response to mental health issues that is less than satisfactory. They said while it reaches out to disaster victims, FEMA does not provide any real help because its refusal to provide treatment.

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The government’s Project Recovery program operated mainly as a referral service which connected almost 400,000 people with doctors and facilities where they could get help. FEMA has refused to assist the institutions that those people were referred to and it has not explained why.

Ed LeGrand, executive director of the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, which administered Project Recovery and led the effort to keep the leftover $4.5 million in the state, said FEMA’s initial response was more like emergency outreach work than actual counseling.

The need, however, for emergency outreach work ran out earlier this year, LeGrand said, so they did not spend the more than $19 million allocated for it in the hope that the funds could be used by MDMH in a way that would have a better impact.

“We could’ve gone ahead and extended Project Recovery,” LeGrand said. “I wanted it to be redirected where it would have a very purposeful and productive use.”

Jeff Bennett, director of the Gulf Coast Mental Health Center, a public treatment facility covering all of Harrison and Hancock counties, said he has struggled with a lack of adequate funding to keep staff and provide assistance to the uninsured and underinsured as people with Katrina-related issues continue to flood his office. Many of those people were referred to him by Project Recovery workers, he said.

Kris Jones, director of disaster preparedness and recovery for MDMH, said Project Recovery was a system largely based on a post-Sept. 11 model.

However, unlike Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 11 did not decimate the local mental health system, Jones said, and at the time they were even able to get away with providing cognitive behavioral therapy to victims, unlike the post-Katrina Gulf Coast.

LeGrand said he was concerned FEMA’s rigid interpretation would affect future disaster recovery programs.

“I did want to set the stage where if there was a significant disaster elsewhere then maybe the feds would be a little more liberal in how they allow the states use those (mental health) funds in the future,” LeGrand said.