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Jim Perdue talks on Alabama Department of Mental Health

Pictured is Jim Perdue, commissioner for the Alabama Department of Mental Health and former Probate Judge of Crenshaw County. Perdue served as the guest speaker at the Luverne Rotary Club this week..

Pictured is Jim Perdue, commissioner for the Alabama Department of Mental Health and former Probate Judge of Crenshaw County. Perdue served as the guest speaker at the Luverne Rotary Club this week..

Last week at the Luverne Rotary Club, James (Jim) Perdue, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health and former Probate Judge for Crenshaw County, served as the guest speaker.

“Mental health has come a long way.  To talk about where I want to take it, first let me take you back to what it used to be,” Perdue said.

Perdue began his talk by going back in time to the beginning of Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which was built in 1861.

Perdue notes that at the time, the hospital had 5,000 beds and 7,000 patients there at one time.

“When it was built there in 1861, it was the largest building in the state of Alabama,” he said.

“People were brought to Bryce Hospital and left at the gate, essentially. They stayed there basically forever. When they died, they were buried on the property. The stigma of being mentally ill carried all the way to the bones.”

Perdue took this opportunity to tell the audience the history behind mental health institutions in Alabama before starting in on his five ideas for improvements in the field.

Perdue says that today he has three hospitals in Tuscaloosa with 900 employees: Bryce Hospital with 268 beds, Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility with 115 beds and Mary Starke Harper Geriatric Psychiatry Center with 96 beds.

“The demand for bed space is unbelievable. So, how do we fix it?” Perdue asked.

“What I did with my staff is come up with five things we can do in the state of Alabama that will save money.”

Perdue’s first suggestion was to educate people on the realities of mental health.

“In mental health, everybody knows everything about mental health that they want to know: nothing. They really don’t want to hear about it; just handle it and keep it under the radar,” Perdue said.

“I want them to understand what we are trying to accomplish.”

The second part of his plan involves merging the management aspect in the Montgomery office with the staff members and establishment present in Tuscaloosa. This will ensure ease of communication and manageability.

“The University of Alabama will build me an administrative building if I move the jobs there and pay rent,” he said.

“We have a lot of duplicate things that are being done in administration because we have such separation.”

The third part of Perdue’s plan dealt with prisoners with mental illnesses.

According to Perdue, about 40 percent of people in prisons today suffer from mental illnesses or substance abuse problems.

“That’s 10,000 people. Now, I’m not pretending to think that we can do something with all 10,000, but what if we could only do 5,000?” Perdue asked.

“The state of Alabama pays a company $13 million a year to go in and treat those individuals in the prison. What I told the governor is give me that $13 million, let me use the community mental health centers we’ve already got and hire our own psychiatrists to go in and treat them.”

The fourth aspect of Perdue’s plan involved helping prisoners suffering from diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and more, continue to receive medical care, while also cutting overall prison expenditures.

According to Perdue, 100 percent of the cost of prison treatment is on state payroll with no federal funding; prisoners are also not eligible for Veteran’s Affairs (VA) benefits, Medicare, Medicaid and more.

“If we could walk out any of those and get them where they’re on anything or just them having a job and treating them, we’ve reduced the cost of our prison expense,” Perdue said.

“We pay 100 percent of the cost of the treatment for things like chemotherapy and radiation. Whereas if they are out, I have a company that could take the old Searcy Hospital, use one of the buildings and create a hospital in a place that’s dying for jobs, move these people out and then they can draw their VA, Medicaid, Medicare or anything else.”

Perdue says that this idea was already enacted in Georgia and has saved the state $51 million.

The final part of the plan dealt with autism, a disease typically diagnosed between the ages of one and two.

“It’s a treatable disease. If you treat them with Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy, it would help turn half of those kids into mainstream, public education students,” Perdue said.

“Therefore, they are less of a burden in the classroom and when they graduate, they are not 100 percent disabled.”

Perdue discussed what he considered would be the benefits of having more job opportunities for ABA therapists in Alabama and how these jobs would benefit those with autism.

“80 percent of the [ABA therapy] graduates leave the state, because they can’t make a living. It wasn’t until last year that I got a bill through that helps even to license them,” Perdue said.

“So, who’s against it? The insurance companies. In 45 of the 50 states, insurance pays for it, but not here. If your child is born with spina bifida or cancer, insurance covers it; autism, no.”

Perdue says that these five things would be an excellent beginning to needed changes in the state, and will hopefully be a stepping-stone to future endeavors in the Department of Mental Health.