There's only one way to fix something as broken as North Carolina's mental health care system: tear it down and start over.
Extreme? Maybe. But the care of mentally ill and developmentally disabled people in this state is a basket case of extremes: extreme incompetence, extreme waste and, in the case of Cherry Hospital employees who couldn't interrupt their card game to bother with a patient who died after sitting in a chair for 22 hours, extreme indifference.
Health and Human Services Secretary Dempsey Benton, appointed by Gov. Mike Easley to clean up the mess he and the Honorables helped create, has managed to bring some semblance of organization to the chaos. But his task is like that of the Little Dutch Boy, trying to stop a flood by plugging a few holes.
No, it's time to stop tweaking and start shoveling.
Go agency by agency, institution by institution. Examine every program. Make all employees - from the top administrators right down to the housekeeping crew - reapply for their jobs. Put all contracts up for rebid. Make contractors and employees justify why taxpayers should rehire them.
Disruptive? Yes. And there are many dedicated employees in this historically underfunded and dysfunctional system, which imploded after the governor and Honorables adopted mental health "reform" several years ago. But patches aren't working.
A logical place to start the purge would be at Cherry Hospital, followed by the other psychiatric hospitals. In addition to the aforementioned death, two Cherry employees were accused of beating a patient while administrators were busy trying to convince federal investigators that conditions were improving. That would be known as getting off on the wrong foot.
Not surprisingly, investigators are now recommending that Cherry lose federal funding. State taxpayers would have to pick up the tab to avoid throwing patients onto the street.
Don't stop with the hospitals. Work all the way down to the local agencies such as Southeastern Center for Mental Health, where budget shortfalls already have cut services to clients and may require more. Among them: some children with developmental disabilities may not be able to attend day care centers designed to meet their needs.
The state's mental health system has been allowed to disintegrate largely because the people who need its services - the mentally ill and substance abusers, especially - are often swept under the rug in our society.
But they are here. They are our neighbors, our sons and daughters, our siblings and our parents. And they deserve much better than the system North Carolina has patched together.
*Note: This an editorial from the News and Observer