A panel of state senators has grilled a key state administrator over moves to close the state-run Mental Health Institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant, but Department of Human Services director Chuck Palmer may still win confirmation from senators to keep his job for another four years.
Palmer told senators he had recommended that the facilities be closed, but the governor made the final decision out of a list of significant budget-cutting options Palmer drew up.
“The budget has driven some of our decisions maybe more quickly than what some of us would like,” Palmer said, “but that’s the reality that I’ve faced.”
Senator Rich Taylor, a Democrat from Mount Pleasant, said he’s not come across “a single person” who thinks closing the two facilities is a good idea.
“I’ve always respected you. I’ve always thought you did a good job,” Taylor said, “until recently.”
Senate President Pam Jochum, a Democrat from Dubuque, echoed those concerns.
“Maybe there’s a master grand plan out there on what we’re going to do with all the folks who have been in these MHIs, but we’ve not heard it,” Jochum told Palmer during today’s Senate Human Resources Committee meeting.
AUDIO of today’s meeting, 53:00
Palmer told senators he believes there will be enough space in privately run facilities to care for patients who would have been sent to the substance abuse and mental health units in Mount Pleasant and the psychiatric unit in Clarinda for elderly patients.
“That’s not to discount the significant impact on those communities and on the fine staff that’s there, so I don’t want to minimize that,” Palmer said. “These are people that I have worked with and these are people, frankly, I care about, so these are not easy decisions.”
Some senators also raised concerns about a plan to hire managed care companies to run Iowa’s $4.2 billion Medicaid program, plus last year’s decision to close the state-run Iowa Juvenile Home. Senator Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City, told Palmer he has a “really hard job.”
“I think a lot of what you have to do is put a smiley face on a lot of the decisions made in this building by your boss and the people down in the Department of Management,” Bolkcom said.
Palmer’s “boss” — Governor Terry Branstad — has asked Palmer to continue to serve as the leader of the largest agency in state government. Two-thirds of the state senate must vote confirm him Palmer for another four-year term. Senator Steve Sodders, a Democrat from State Center, will be a no.
“And I would like everyone to keep this mantra: chuck Chuck,” Sodders told his colleagues during remarks on the senate floor earlier this week.
Palmer must get the backing of at least 34 senators to keep his job. Palmer made this pitch today: “Why would I be interested in continuing? One, because I really am committed and I really believe deeply in what we’ve been able to do…I consider myself a problem solver and a bridge builder. I consider myself very open to input.”
Palmer, who is 76 years old, served as director of the Department of Human Services from 1989 through 1999, until Governor Terry Branstad left office. Palmer returned to the department in 2011 when Branstad returned to the governor’s office.