Police officers were called to help clear the room after a legislative committee meeting on proposed changes to the state's mental health system ended before advocates for people with developmental disabilities were given a chance to speak.
At issue is a plan to consolidate local mental health agencies across the state and cut costs by giving them more authority to manage limited resources to help people with serious mental illnesses, developmental disabilities or substance abuse issues. There are currently long waiting lists for families seeking some treatment services through Medicaid, which pays for much of the care for people who qualify as permanently disabled.
"My biggest concern are the people who are currently receiving no services," said bill sponsor Rep. Jeff Barnhart, a Concord Republican who is also the CEO of Cabarrus Community Health Centers, Inc. "Everyone will get the level of services they need. No more, no less."
Under the new managed care system, many parents and caregivers for people with developmental disabilities are worried they will lose what services they now receive. They look at the sometimes spastic system wide changes imposed by the state's mental health bureaucrats in recent years, and see yet another reform plan being rushed through the legislature before all the kinks are ironed out.
At the very end of the hour-long committee meeting, Chairman Sen. Fletcher Hartsell, also a Concord Republican, announced it was time to hear from members of the public. The first to be recognized was Mary K. Short, the mother of a severely disabled daughter.
"The people who wrote all these past mistakes are the same people who wrote this," Short said. "The idea that you're going to save money when people are on waiting lists is absurd. ... The families aren't the ones running things over budget. Families are not the problem. It's the people at the (Division of Medical Assistance) who keep writing all these things that keep failing."
After Short spoke, Hartsell declared that time had run out and that the meeting was over. That triggered an angry response from the advocates and family members backed into the back of the room, many of whom had traveled from across the state to be heard on the bill likely to greatly affect their lives and those of their loved ones.
As people shouted at Hartsell, asking to be allowed to speak, three General Assembly police officers entered the room. Lt. Martin Brock, the ranking officer on scene, positioned himself in front of Sen. Hartsell, attempting to protect the legislator from the ire of a disabled woman in a motorized wheelchair.
The committee took no action on the proposed legislation, House Bill 916. Another committee meeting is scheduled for in the morning, possibly at 8:30.
Pat Wiegand, the mother of two adult children with Down Syndrome, had driven up from Wilmington in the hopes of being heard on the proposed legislation. She left the meeting room agitated and flanked by two police officers.
"Disgusting," she said. "We're never at the table when the decisions are made. It cost me 50 bucks in gas to get up here. Now I'll have to leave at 5:30 a.m. tomorrow morning to come back again."