- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

D.C. Department of Mental Health officials will contract out the management of their patient accounts because an audit yesterday revealed the agency has not returned $1 million to the relatives of deceased patients.
"We are going through the process now, and there will be two nonprofit firms that we will award the contract to," said agency Director Martha B. Knisley.
Mrs. Knisley said her agency will finalize the agreement by the end of next month, adding that the contract is still being negotiated. She could not give any specifics about the firms that have submitted bids.
"This is one of two things we are doing beyond the [D.C. inspector generals] recommendations," she said, referring to a report about her agency that was released yesterday.
The Washington Times first reported yesterday that Inspector General Charles C. Maddox found 3,000 mismanaged patient accounts in the mental health department over the past two years.
About 600 accounts have accumulated a total of more than $1 million in 30 years because of inadequate procedures for notifying relatives of patients' deaths, the report stated. The mental health department, which has 1,900 employees, also has maintained 900 accounts totaling $250,000 for patients no longer in its care.
The majority of the patient accounts have balances of less than $10, and many of those have balances of less than $1, Mr. Maddox noted in his 50-page report.
Mrs. Knisley said her agency, whose current budget is more than $227 million, has written new policies for dealing with accounts and will submit monthly reports to Mayor Anthony A. Williams in accordance with the inspector general's recommendations.
She also is working on an agreement with the Social Security Administration to expedite benefits for disabled clients who cannot work. "We are reducing the bureaucratic steps so our clients can get their benefits in three months, instead of the previous six," Mrs. Knisley said.
The Department of Mental Health, which regulates the city's mental health system, has long been one of the worst-run agencies in the District. It provides services through the Community Service Agency and St. Elizabeths Hospital.
A 1974 class-action lawsuit against the federal government, the District and St. Elizabeths sought community-based mental health treatment for patients whose illnesses were not severe enough to require hospitalization. "At that time, everyone with any form of mental illness was treated in-house at St. Elizabeths," said department spokeswoman Linda Grant.
The late U.S. District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.
In 1980, all parties in the lawsuit agreed on an implementation plan for developing a mental health office for the city, and the federal government transferred control of St. Elizabeths to the District in 1987. But adequate community-based care for patients with mild forms of mental illness never materialized.
Judge Robinson, who died in February 2000, put the agency in receivership in September 1997.
Transitional receiver Dennis Jones drafted a plan for a D.C. agency that would provide and monitor mental health services. His plan was approved in February 2000 by U.S. District Judge Norma Holloway Johnson.
"We have been working toward establishing policy and regulations since that time," Mrs. Grant said.
The department, which emerged from receivership May 15, serves about 550 patients at St. Elizabeths, and more than 7,000 clients are in community care facilities throughout the city.
Mrs. Knisley asked the inspector general in August to audit her agency's patient accounts to identify any problems in the agency that she or her staff may have missed.
She said the mayor asked Mr. Maddox to conduct a general audit of the agency from January 2000 to last September. During budget negotiations this year, Mr. Williams fought to increase the agency's budget to help its new director address widespread and long-standing problems.
To inquire about an individual's account, relatives can call the Office of Finance and Information Systems at 202/645-7370 on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., or send e-mail to [email protected]


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