Senate Republicans appear disorganized during MHI debates

Clarinda MHIBy Bob Eschliman



The Iowa Senate Republican Caucus can now sympathize with Alexander Cooper, the protagonist in the classic children’s book-turned family film “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.”

Wednesday was a not-so-good day during afternoon floor debate of three bills, two of which focused on Gov. Terry Branstad’s proposed closure of state mental health institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant.

It all started during debate of Senate File 333, the first of those bills, when Senate Minority Leader Bill Dix (R-Shell Rock) requested the proposed legislation be deferred, pending the arrival of a Republican amendment. It continued a short time later when he announced a Republican caucus – which lasted 24 minutes – while the Senate was in the midst of debate on the second, Senate File 402.

CLICK HERE to see video of the first segment of the session.

When the Republicans emerged from caucus, state Sen. Mark Chelgren (R-Ottumwa) asked that SF 402 be deferred as well, pending another amendment. The chaos even spilled over, slightly, to the Democratic side of the aisle.

“I think we passed a bill,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal (D-Council Bluffs) said, which drew a couple of chuckles, as he tried to remember which of the three bills had already been passed. He quickly got it right, however, requesting Senate File 299, which had been adopted earlier in the session, be messaged to the House of Representatives.

That bill, floor managed by state Sen. Rob Hogg (D-Cedar Rapids), would add a non-voting member to the Community Based Corrections boards in Iowa. Those new members would be AFSCME representatives.

“This is not unprecedented,” Hogg said. “We have done this with our statewide and regional boards for workforce development … it strengthens labor-management relationships.”

No amendments were offered, and no senators rose to debate SF 299, which ultimately passed on a 27-22 vote. State Sen. Brad Zaun (R-Urbandale) was absent when the vote took place.

Hogg also floor managed SF 333, which would require the Iowa Department of Human Services to continue providing at all four of the state’s MHIs the services that the General Assembly approved in the current fiscal year budget through the end of the budget year on June 30. He said Branstad had agreed to provide those services when he signed the legislature’s appropriation for the MHIs into law.

Once the Senate resumed business after Republicans returned from caucus, it again took up the bill and considered an amendment from state Sen. David Johnson (R-Ocheyedan). The amendment would have reworded the bill to allow for home and community-based care in addition to care provided at the MHIs, depending on what was the “most appropriate and highest quality of care possible.”

It also would strike the provision requiring the DHS to continue admitting eligible patients to the Clarinda and Mount Pleasant MHIs through the remainder of the fiscal year.

The confusion and chaos for Republicans continued, however. Johnson, in introducing his resolution, began talking about a resolution he had also drafted for SF 402. Midway through, he was interrupted by Dix, who pointed out the mistake.

In eventually discussing the correct amendment, however, Johnson pointed to a June 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that medical professionals, not legislators, should determine the placement of mental health patients. In its ruling in Olmstead v. L.C., the Supreme Court said those decisions should be based on what least restrictive and most beneficial for the patients.

Hogg said he appreciated what Johnson was proposing, on its face. But, he noted the amendment had two fatal flaws, as far as he was concerned. First, it struck the heart of the bill, he said, the continued admission of mental health patients at Clarinda and Mount Pleasant, and more or less adopted the governor’s position.

If the amendment had merely been added, without striking, Hogg said he probably could have supported it. The second flaw, he said, was that referencing the Olmstead ruling was unnecessarily redundant, since it was “already the law,” having been codified during the 2011 statewide mental health redesign.

“You don’t just get on the phone and say, ‘Yo, I want to send my kid to Clarinda for the weekend because he’s wigged out,’” he added. “It doesn’t work that way.”

State Sen. Liz Mathis (D-Robins) noted a “Olmstead service plan” on the DHS website that included expansion of services at the MHIs. It said Clarinda was specifically ready to move forward with those expansions.

State Sen. Mark Chelgren (R-Ottumwa) said the amendment “brings mental health services into the 21st century.” During a colloquy with Mathis, he said he is one of the few Republicans in the Senate who still believes in the need for state-run MHIs.

During his closing remarks on the amendment, Johnson addressed both Mathis’ and Hogg’s comments.

First, he said he doubted all the patients in the Clarinda and Mount Pleasant MHIs are from those communities, but rather from all over the state. He said the amendment focuses on those patients’ needs in the communities, not necessarily in the communities of the four MHIs – Clarinda, Mount Pleasant, Cherokee, and Independence.

Johnson then tore into Hogg, who had earlier suggested his interest in the amendment was perhaps fueled by a desire to move patients to “Cherokee, in Northwest Iowa.” Johnson said Hogg should be “ashamed of himself” for making that suggestion.

“Shame on you,” he said. “We’re talking about people here. Not politics.”

His amendment was defeated, however, 28-22. No additional debate was had on SF 333 as a whole. During his closing remarks, Hogg talked about the patients, families, and staff he met at the Clarinda and Mount Pleasant MHIs.

“There is a need for these facilities,” he said. “In all the discussion over the amendment, I never heard anyone say there wasn’t a need for these facilities.”

SF 333 was adopted by a 32-18 vote.

CLICK HERE to see video of the second segment of the session.

The Senate then resumed business on SF 402, which would ensure appropriate mental health services are already in place before patients are removed from the MHIs in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant. Earlier in the day, its floor manager, Sen. Rich Taylor (D-Mount Pleasant), introduced the bill – which he called “the most important mental health bill we could pass” – by discussing the story of a Scott County family who has had to deal with a 20-year-old son who has Asperger’s Syndrome. He also noted that 1-in-4 Iowans are directly affected by mental health issues.

“When I heard Gov. Branstad’s plan to close the mental health institutes in Clarinda and Mount Pleasant, I was surprised. I was appalled,” he said. “Senate File 402 will help Iowa get back on track and end the seat-of-the-pants approach.”

SF 402 would require the DHS to continue accepting eligible patients at the most appropriate MHI, including Clarinda and Mount Pleasant, through June 30. DHS is also directed to provide “adequate care” and “adequately trained and compensated professionals” to those patients.

Initially, there was no amendment filed for the bill. And, as a result, debate began with state Sen. Mark Costello (R-Imogene), who represents Clarinda, who stood in support of the bill.

“I’ve heard nothing but good reports about the care provided there,” he said. “These aren’t patients in Clarinda. Many of the patients consider the staff there to be family … and there’s real fear some may not survive transfer.”

When debate resumed on SF 402, senators took up Johnson’s amendment to that bill. Like his amendment to SF 333, it allowed for the provision of mental health services, as deemed best appropriate, in home and community based settings, as well as the MHIs.

It also struck the requirement to maintain the Clarinda and Mount Pleasant MHIs through the end of the fiscal year. It also required, before any MHI could be closed, that DHS “shall have a plan in place to ensure proper placement of all patients currently in the mental health institute to be closed. The plan shall take into account the level of care required by each patient and the safety and well-being of the patient, the patient’s family, and the community at large.”

While the amendment would require the plan to close any MHI to be presented to the General Assembly before it is initiated, it did not require legislative approval. In his comments about the amendment, Taylor said SF 402 doesn’t tell DHS how to do its job, but rather just to do its job, and to tell the legislature what it needs to do so.

State Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D-Iowa City), during his brief comments on the amendment, said it was a “fig leaf for the governor’s bad decisions to close Mount Pleasant and Clarinda.” He told Senate Republicans it was “unfortunate they have to defend that,” before suggesting they weren’t doing a very good job of it.

That comment drew an immediate point-of-order and another meeting in the well. After and admonition to the entire Senate from Senate President Pam Jochum, Bolkcom resumed his attack on Republicans, which prompted a second point-of-order.

When he was done, Dix announced Republicans would again immediately caucus. Two hours and eight minutes later, they returned to continue debate over the Johnson amendment, which ultimately failed on a 27-21 vote (state Sens. Jerry Behn (R-Boone) and Matt McCoy (D-Des Moines) were absent).

Ultimately, SF 402 was put to a vote and was adopted, 29-19.

CLICK HERE to see video of the final segment of the session.