Phoenix judge OKs deal reached in 30-year-old lawsuit on state's mental health funding

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PHOENIX — A Maricopa County judge on Monday signed off on an agreement that increases housing, employment and other services for the seriously mentally ill.

Judge Edward Bassett's action came as he dismissed a lawsuit filed more than 30 years ago challenging the state's funding of mental health services. The terms of the agreement reached in January between Gov. Jan Brewer and lawyers for the mentally ill will apply statewide.

No money will be spent beyond an extra $39 million a year pumped into the system more than two years ago as part of an interim agreement ending the lawsuit. The expansion of Medicaid in Arizona that began Jan. 1 will pay for some of the additional costs.

Brewer celebrated the dismissal, saying the deal provides needed treatment and puts in place a model community-based behavioral health system.

"Having served in public office for more than three decades, I have been greatly invested and involved in making sure our seriously mentally ill citizens are provided quality care and services they deserve," Brewer said in a statement.

Among the provisions are an additional 1,200 housing units for the mentally ill population and a commitment to provide employment services for an additional 750 patients.

The class action lawsuit called Arnold v. Sarn has wound its way through the courts for Brewer's entire political career. In the decades since the suit was filed, it has been the subject of numerous legal fights and reviews as the state struggled to follow court orders and earlier compliance agreements. At times, advocates have estimated the cost of compliance in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Brewer, who has a son who is seriously mentally ill, has long championed services for those with behavioral health issues.

There are currently nearly 19,000 seriously mentally ill people receiving services in Maricopa County, and the costs to treat many of them are paid by the state's Medicaid program. More are expected to be covered under Medicaid expansion, freeing up state money.

The state has agreed to adopt national quality standards for treatment, and will do annual evaluations of the program's effectiveness. In addition to the new housing and jobs programs, crisis intervention and respite care services, family and peer support and life skills training will be provided for the mentally ill and their families.

Judge Bassett retained the right to enforce provisions of the agreement if the state fails to follow through as promised.

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