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MENTAL HEALTH: System Redesign Considered

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Jennifer Johansen is happiest at home with her mom and dad and her Bon Jovi posters.

“She's like a normal (almost) 25 year old with a good sense of humor,” says dad John Johansen.

Born with a cyst on her brain, Jennifer requires around the clock care. The family turned their garage into Jennifer`s room. They have made other changes to keep her healthy and safe at home. Last year, during a tornado warning, the fire department had to come and carry Jennifer downstairs to safety. The Johansens applied for Home and Vehicle Modification waiver to pay for a chair lift.

“We just want the safest way possible to get downstairs and that's all we're asking,” says Johansen.

DHS denied their request saying it cost too much money. The Johansens are concerned that if the state can't pay for their daughter’s chair lift, how can it afford to expand mental health services? They also want to know if her services are at risk.

“We feel that it's our right to ask how are we going to be able to pay for that and will our daughter be able to stay in our home,” says Johansen.

“The redesign in and of itself would not change their ability to receive the services they are getting today,” says DHS Director Charles Palmer.

The plan would replace the 99 county run operations with one state system. The department is asking the Legislature for $133 million over five years.

“We need it for a number of reasons, but certainly consistency, equality, equity so it isn't a matter of where you live determining what you get,” says Palmer.

“It varies hugely and part of the problem has been that the code is not there. The rules have not been there. There has not been an accountability system in place and with this particular legislation, there will be those things,” says Nancy Hale, executive director of NAMI Iowa, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Iowa lawmakers say they don’t know how they’re going to pay for it, but it's something that the state can afford.

“It's not gonna be cheap, but it's something the state can sustain with local property tax levy that we have. Also, there's a very healthy ending balance in the state. We have over $900 million in cash reserves,” says State Sen. Jack Hatch, (D) Des Moines.

“I think something absolutely has to get done this year. You can't leave families out there and people currently receiving services in limbo any longer,” says State Rep. Lisa Heddens, (D) Ames.

Heddens is one of those families. Her son has Down Syndrome so she understands the concerns people have with so many unknowns.

Iowa lawmakers say the money will be there. Despite the assurances, the Johansens can’t help but worry that their daughter will be affected.

“Jennifer deserves the best and that's what we try to provide to her every day.”