- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - A bill seeking to keep two state mental health facilities open longer won approval from a House panel Wednesday, although lawmakers acknowledged the change might not be enacted soon enough to prevent some employees from losing their jobs.

Members of a House Appropriations subcommittee said the Legislature was running out of time to help employees and patients at facilities in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant as their programs are gradually shut down. Layoffs for most employees at Mount Pleasant were scheduled to take effect by April 6, and patients are no longer being accepted in most programs at both facilities.

“This bill, if we really hustle, could actually get to the governor’s desk as early as next week,” said Rep. Ken Rizer, R-Marion Township, who chaired Wednesday’s meeting.

The legislation, which originated in the Senate and passed with bipartisan support in March, would require the state Department of Health and Human Services to submit a transition plan for the closings. A newly formed commission, which would include lawmakers, would then need to approve the plan before the closings could be final.

The bill also would require the facilities to remain open until the fiscal year that ends at the end of June.

Jennifer Harbison, a lobbyist for DHS, said at the subcommittee meeting that she was still reviewing some last-minute proposals to the bill.

Rep. David Heaton, R-Mount Pleasant, has been vocal about his opposition to the closings and was on the subcommittee Wednesday. He along with Rizer acknowledged the bill may not get to Gov. Terry Branstad in time to stop some of the layoffs. Heaton said he wasn’t sure what would happen in that scenario.

“All I know is that we’re going day by day,” Heaton said about the legislative effort.

Rizer said he expects the bill to be approved out of the full Appropriations Committee this week. It would then go to the full House for consideration, where he also expects it to pass.

Efforts to get this bill to Branstad emerged after the governor’s budget proposal released in January removed funding for the facilities. Some lawmakers and health services groups have criticized the timetable for the facilities to close. They expressed concern it may also force patients to travel long distances for treatment.

Branstad’s office, along with the DHS, have said affected patients will be able to seek treatment at the other state mental health facilities in Cherokee and Independence, among other locations.

When asked if Branstad would sign the bill, spokesman Jimmy Centers said Wednesday that the governor would “carefully review it in its final form.”

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