Dave Heaton

Dave Heaton

Governor Branstad is proposing that the state-run Mental Health Institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant be closed this summer. The budget Governor Branstad delivered to legislators this week does not include any money to keep the institutions open past June 30. Representative Dave Heaton, a Republican from Mount Pleasant, says there will be push back from the two communities as well as legislators.

“It’s like a lot of things today,” Heaton says. “It seems like administrations whether it’s in Des Moines or Washington, D.C. are going around the legislative bodies and moving forward their own agendas and I am disturbed about that.”

Heaton suggests Branstad was likely emboldened to make this move after legislators failed to block the governor’s abrupt closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home a year ago.

“I think the governor is violating the budgetary process,” Heaton says. “He’s making a unilateral decision without input from the legislature…He’s saying: ‘I just want to close ’em.’ And that’s not right.”

Heaton is chairman of the subcommittee that writes the budget for the Iowa Department of Human Services, the agency in charge of the Mental Health Institutes, and he’s arranged for the agency’s director to go to Mount Pleasant on the morning of Saturday, January 24 to explain the proposed closure to the community. Five years ago a consulting firm hired by then-Governor Chet Culver recommended that the Mental Health Institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant close, but Heaton and others worked to keep the institutions open.

“It was a long process in which the communities had an opportunity to get involved in the decision-making,” Heaton says. “This time it was done in the night and the governor just said: ‘We’re closing.'”

The state has four Mental Health Institutes. The Clarinda facility has 24 patients and there are 47 patients in Mount Pleasant. Amy McCoy, the spokeswoman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, says it’s likely those patients would be transferred to the other state-run facilities in Cherokee and Independence.

“Number one, we’ll be focusing on patient safety and quality as we make any transitions,” McCoy says. “The mental health delivery is changing and has been changing for a number of years and we must keep up with these best practices, but we value our staff very much and the service they’ve provided at these facilities has benefitted many, many Iowans over the years.”

About 80 people currently work at each of the facilities targeted for closure. McCoy says it’s unclear how many might be offered jobs in Independence or Cherokee.

“This is an extremely difficult situation for our staff and we want to be able to offer them as many details as possible,” McCoy says. “We’re going to work very, very quickly so they have the information they need to make their personal plans.”

The president of the union the represents many of those workers says Branstad’s “secretive decision” took “almost everyone by surprise,” even legislators. AFSCME Council 61 president Danny Homan says the governor’s “drastic recommendation” will impact “some of the most vulnerable Iowans.”

The Mental Health Institutes are routinely the treatment option of last resort for acute care of mentally ill patients. The governor’s budget indicates the state will save $15.5 million by closing the two facilities. The MHI at Clarinda opened in 1888 while the Mount Pleasant facility opened the year the Civil War broke out, in 1861.

(Reporting by Theresa Rose, KILJ, Mt Pleasant; additional reporting by Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson)