AFSCME, 20 Democratic legislators sue Branstad over mental health closures (updated)

Iowa’s largest public employee union and 20 Democratic state legislators filed a lawsuit today challenging the closure of mental health institutes in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda. I enclose below a press release from AFSCME Council 61, which lists the six state senators and fourteen state representatives who joined the lawsuit naming Governor Terry Branstad and Department of Human Services Director Chuck Palmer.

The Branstad administration announced plans in January to close two of Iowa’s four in-patient mental health facilities. State legislators were neither consulted nor notified in advance. The Department of Human Services started winding down operations well before the end of the 2015 fiscal year. Democrats fought to include funding for the Clarinda and Mount Pleasant institutes in the budget for the current fiscal year, but Branstad item-vetoed the appropriation. The lawsuit contends that closing the facilities violates Iowa Code, which holds that the state “shall operate” mental health institutes in Mount Pleasant and Clarinda. The governor’s communications director told KCCI that AFSCME’s leader in Iowa “is resistant to change” and that the closed “centers were not suited to offer modern mental health care.”

The Iowa legislature’s decision next year on whether to fund the Clarinda and Mount Pleasant facilities will be critically important. The Iowa Supreme Court recently dismissed the lawsuit challenging the closure of the Iowa Juvenile Home in 2014, without considering the merits of that case, on the grounds that the legislature made the issue “moot” by no longer appropriating state money to operate that facility. By refusing to include funding for the two closed mental health institutes in the budget for fiscal year 2017, Iowa House Republicans could bolster the Branstad administration’s efforts to defeat the lawsuit filed today.

UPDATE: Added more speculation about this lawsuit’s prospects below.

AFSCME press release, July 13:


DES MOINES AFSCME Iowa Council 61 President Danny Homan and 20 legislators have filed suit in the Iowa District Court for Polk County regarding Governor Branstad’s illegal closure of the Mt. Pleasant Mental Health Institute and Clarinda Mental Health Institute. The legislators taking part in the suit are Senator Rich Taylor, Representative Jerry Kearns, Representative Mark Smith, Senator Thomas Courtney, Senator Janet Petersen, Representative Bruce Hunter, Representative Curt Hanson, Senator Tony Bisignano, Senator Herman Quirmbach, Senator Dick Dearden, Representative Art Staed, Representative Ako Abdul-Samad, Representative Jo Oldson, Representative Ruth Ann Gaines, Representative Sharon Steckman, Representative Todd Taylor, Representative Mary Gaskill, Representative Kirsten Running-Marquardt, Representative Timi Brown-Powers, and Representative Dave Jacoby.

The lawsuit, which was filed against Governor Terry Branstad and Director Charles Palmer, seeks to compel the governor and his administration to comply with Iowa law and reopen the Mt. Pleasant and Clarinda Mental Health Institutes.

“Iowa law clearly states that the State of Iowa shall operate Mental Health Institutes in Mt. Pleasant and Clarinda. 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 is still the law today,” said AFSCME Iowa Council 61 President Danny Homan.

“No one is above the law. That includes the governor. We are filing this lawsuit to hold him accountable for breaking the law,” added Homan.

“I am pleased that 20 legislators are joining with me in filing this lawsuit. We are proud to stand together in support of the rule of law and mental health services,” added Homan.

UPDATE: From Tony Leys’s report for the Des Moines Register:

Governor’s spokesman Jimmy Centers fired off a response minutes after the union announced its widely anticipated lawsuit.

“We understand that Mr. Homan’s top priority is protecting union jobs, but Gov. Branstad’s top priority is ensuring Iowa’s mental health patients have access to modern mental healthcare delivered in accredited facilities,” Centers wrote in an email to the Register. “More Iowans have access to quality healthcare than ever before including mental healthcare and substance abuse treatment. Doctors, advocates and mental health professionals all believe that modern mental health care is best delivered locally, in-home or in community-based settings. Mr. Homan and AFSCME may be resistant to change that improves Iowans’ health and eager to sue on behalf of their members to protect the status quo, but Gov. Branstad will continue putting patients first and working to improve care, increase access and modernize our state’s delivery of services.” […]

Drake University law school professor Jerry Foxhoven said that because of the Supreme Court ruling in the Toledo-school case, he wouldn’t bet on the governor’s critics winning their new lawsuit involving the mental hospitals.

The justices essentially ruled in the Toledo case that if all state money was cut from a program, it didn’t matter if state law said the program should exist, said Foxhoven, who is a longtime advocate for children and people with disabilities. The governor effectively followed the justices’ recipe in the way he vetoed spending on the mental hospitals, the professor said. “You can argue all you want to about whether it’s the right thing to do, but does he have the right to do it? I think the Toledo ruling says he does.”

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