Pardon me for not rejoicing

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Another day, another spitting match between Gov. Terry Branstad and a public employee union.

The latest lawsuit was launched by AFSCME in response to Branstad’s shuttering of two of the state’s four mental health institutes. The union was joined in the Polk County filing by 20 state lawmakers.

“Iowa law clearly states that the state of Iowa shall operate mental health institutes in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda,” said AFSCME President Danny Homan.

“This was the law when the governor announced his decision to close these facilities. This was the law when the legislature passed, with bipartisan support, the funding to keep these facilities open. This was the law when he closed these two facilities. It still is the law today.”

The entire situation could nearly be cut-and-pasted from the aftermath of the closing of the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo, the only big difference being that there truly were unsavory incidents taking place within that facility.

Never mind Branstad’s own task force advocated for the juvenile facility to remain open. Never mind state law mandated operation of such a facility. Branstad closed it anyway.

Correctional officers, many of them AFSCME members, demonstrate outside the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison against budget cuts in this file photo.
Correctional officers, many of them AFSCME members, demonstrate outside the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison against budget cuts in this file photo.

Within weeks a judge said the Branstad administration broke the law: “To totally eliminate the operations of the Toledo Home … is to essentially ignore the laws of the State of Iowa as enacted lawfully by the General Assembly and allows the executive branch to unilaterally decide which laws it will obey and which laws it will not.”

A legal appeal was filed, providing taxpayer-funded time. Ultimately it was a moot point. Please pay no attention to the troubled girls left to navigate a patchwork of private services that has already failed them; rest assured the state still provides for its troubled boys ­— for now.

In the case of Clarinda and Mount Pleasant, executive branch talking points centered on a lack of professional staff and accreditation. Pray tell who was responsible for maintaining staff and certifications at these state-run facilities?

Many of the families and professionals I spoke with were somewhat optimistic that the services offered at Mount Pleasant — dual diagnosis and substance abuse — could be absorbed by the state’s fledgling community-based care network.

The same wasn’t true of Clarinda, which ran a specialized geriatric psychiatry unit. Many of those served in Clarinda arrived after private placements failed.

And, it isn’t as if the governor’s office wasn’t aware. Several people told me they raised alarm bells. When Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds sat down with The Gazette’s editorial board, I asked several questions related to the geriatric unit and its patients. I was assured that there was only a small number of patients in the unit. Was I aware that the facility wasn’t accredited?

For the record, there were less than 20 patients in the Clarinda unit, and two of them died shortly after being transferred. The first was in April, weeks before Branstad rejected lawmakers’ compromise to keep the facility open while adequate care was established elsewhere. A second patient died July 1. With any luck they’re now haunting an old Des Moines house on a hill.

But, I digress. A public union and a handful of lawmakers are suing the governor. Bully for them.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on July 18, 2015. Photo credit: The Gazette