Rob Hogg

Rob Hogg

Senators late yesterday had an often bitter debate over the future of care for Iowans with acute mental illnesses. A Republican from northwest Iowa offered an alternative that said mentally ill patients should be placed in the most appropriate and highest level of care possible.

Senator Rob Hogg, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, scoffed.

“Oh, by the way, maybe you’re voting because you want more patients to go to Cherokee in northwest Iowa,” Hogg said sarcastically.

One of the state’s four Mental Health Institutes is located in Cherokee. Senator David Johnson, a Republican from Ocheyedan, snapped back.

“Shame on you, Senator Hogg, for thinking I’m trying to move everybody to Cherokee,” Johnson said. “We’re talking about people here, not politics.”

Mark Chelgren

Mark Chelgren

The debate was sparked by Governor Branstad’s move to close the state-run Mental Health Institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant. Senator Mark Chelgren, a Republican from Ottumwa, favors keeping both facilities open, but Chelgren said legislators are “arrogant” if they think they know better than the professionals where mentally ill patients should be placed.

“State Mental Health Institutes are not the only place to get quality care for patients,” Chelgren said.

Senator Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City, suggested Republicans in the Senate were searching for a “fig leaf to cover up for the governor’s bad decisions in his proposal to close Clarinda and Mount Pleasant and it’s unfortunate that you all have to defend that.

“And I’d have to say you’re not doing a very good job of it.”

After that comment, Republican senators retreated into a private meeting for two hours before emerging shortly before 6:30 p.m.

Senators ultimately passed two bills on the subject. One called on officials to keep the Clarinda and Mount Pleasant Mental Health Institutes open and accept patients through June 30. Another bill that passed on a 29-19 vote called for keeping the MHI’s open until a “long-term” plan was in place to ensure there’s care somewhere for the most severely mentally ill Iowans. Senator Rich Taylor, a Democrat from Mount Pleasant, said legislators need to look out for the state’s most vulnerable citizens.

“In my opinion, this is one of the most important issues that we’re going to face in this legislature this year or in years to come,” Taylor said. “We have to take care of these people. I beg you all to join with me.”

Senator Mark Costello, a Republican from Imogene, represents the Clarinda area and he made a plea to keep the Clarinda MHI open at least temporarily.

“I’ve received letters from family members that have expressed the fear that their loves ones may not survive the transfer,” Costello said. “…I just feel this bill is important. We want to make sure that these patients are cared for.”

Senator Liz Mathis, a Democrat from Cedar Rapids, said the state’s psychiatrists and executives from private hospitals say they’re not ready to pick up the slack once Clarinda and Mount Pleasant close.

“Turning off the lights at a mental health facility is not a transition plan,” Mathis said.

On Tuesday, a Republican from Mount Pleasant lashed out at the governor’s plan to close the Clarinda and Mount Pleasant Mental Health Institutes. Representative Dave Heaton called it a “radical” move to close the state-run facilities before the private sector was prepared to care for Iowans with severe mental illnesses.