Eleanor Schorr's office at the Arizona State Capitol has such a grandmotherly ambiance that a visitor half expects to be served milk and cookies. A homemade quilt hangs on one wall, a bowl of fresh fruit and an iris adorn her coffee table, and photographs of her children and grandkids are taped to a filing cabinet.
But this sixty-year-old Tucson legislator can fight like a street brawler--especially when the argument is about the treatment of the chronically mentally ill. On their own, the estimated 9,000 impoverished Arizona adults who suffer from maladies like schizophrenia and often end up on the streets have perhaps the weakest political clout of any group in the state. They also have some of the toughest advocates.
Schorr, an attorney and former justice of the peace, has fought on their behalf ever since her daughter was diagnosed as chronically mentally ill sixteen years ago.
Now in her second term in the House of Representatives, Ellie Schorr is gearing up for especially grueling combat.
For starters, she has introduced legislation to exert more control on the nonprofit companies (like CODAMA in Phoenix) that funnel state money to the private agencies that actually treat those with behavioral-health problems. Schorr has had a long-running battle with ADAPT, a nonprofit company in Tucson that brokers behavioral-health services in that part of the state.
She's got another fight going. She strongly opposes House Bill 2459, which would decimate funding for the chronically mentally ill in Arizona. The bill would allow the legislature to thumb its nose at a 1989 Arizona Supreme Court decision that orders the state to pay for the medical care of its poor, chronically mentally ill citizens, who have been neglected for years.
Arizona ranks near the bottom in many social-service categories and is the only state that doesn't have Medicaid. The state's alternative program for health services to the poor, AHCCCS, is under constant pressure from the legislature to cut expenses and never has embraced treatment of the chronically mentally ill.
Schorr says the bill she opposes would "shred" the landmark Arnold v. Sarn decision that found the state was violating the rights of its mentally ill citizens. The Arnold decision, upheld by the Arizona Supreme Court, ordered the state to pay for and set up a plan to treat the chronically mentally ill.
"Arizona can't afford yet another blow to people's civil rights," says Tannis Fox, a lawyer with the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest who successfully sued the state on behalf of the mentally ill. "The right of treatment is a civil right. The legislature is aware that poor people with chronic mental illness are sick and they can't get services through AHCCCS."
The court-ordered plan, which would cost $200 million over five years, has been strongly opposed by numerous state officials who chafe at being told by judges what to do. The legislature has balked at appropriating the money. The state health director, Ted Williams, has been found in contempt of the court order because he didn't fund the program. His boss, outgoing Governor Rose Mofford, wrote a letter in late February that asked the legislature either to cough up the money or rewrite its laws.
The day of Mofford's letter, Representative David Schweikert of Fountain Hills introduced the new bill, which essentially would give the legislature the power either to fund or not fund the treatment of poor, mentally ill people--regardless of the court order.
Mofford spokesperson Howard Boice calls the new bill the "Keep Ted Williams Out of Jail Bill." He says Mofford wrote the letter because she figures it's time to "solve the problem instead of playing games and not doing anything to change the law." Boice calls it a "tragedy" that seriously mentally ill people are "on the low end of the totem pole" and will get "squeezed out." But he says legislators have to "set priorities."
"Where do we get the money?" he asks. "Do we take it from highways? Waste management? Water? Law enforcement?"
Schweikert, a 28-year-old first-term Republican legislator, tells New Times that he didn't even know about Mofford's letter when he introduced the bill, which is co-sponsored by several other young, first-term lawmakers. He says his intention wasn't to cut off funding for the mentally ill, but to take control of the situation from the courts.
The bill, says Schweikert, happened to name the program for the chronically mentally ill because it is the "most obvious example" of how courts are trying to run the legislature. "There seems to be a belief among mental-health advocates that the bill will take away money, and that's wrong," he says, adding that he may eliminate the term "chronically mentally ill" to make the bill more "broad."
Tannis Fox says Schweikert's bill would simply result in another costly court fight. And Ellie Schorr says, "This would be another black mark for Arizona." The bottom line, says Schorr, is that the legislature "doesn't like to think that the courts can rule the roost on how we appropriate money."
Schweikert says Schorr is a formidable foe. "She's got tunnel vision sometimes. She drives you nuts when you argue with her."
Ironically, Schweikert says he supports Schorr's bill to force nonprofit companies to be more accountable for state dollars they are supposed to funnel out to community behavioral health providers.
This year, the Arizona Department of Health Services will give the companies about $111.5 million. Those "umbrella" companies in turn hire behavioral-health companies and individuals to actually provide the care--running the gamut from counseling to drug treatment.
Problem is, the "umbrella" companies are not always eager to explain exactly how they spend their money. "This money is public," says Schorr. "They have a free hand in doing what they wish to do with the money and have little input from anybody."
Schorr has repeatedly battled a Tucson "umbrella" company called ADAPT. Last summer she even requested a state investigation of ADAPT after discovering that ADAPT spent about $600,000 on a building to provide services to children. Schorr said the money should have paid for treatment, not a building. The state auditor general has investigated but hasn't yet released a report.
Now ADAPT and Schorr are at it again. In January Schorr discovered that ADAPT's board of directors had approved a policy allowing its executives to get "incentive" bonuses. Schorr asked ADAPT for information on employee salaries, pointing out that ADAPT gets public funds. ADAPT refused in what Schorr calls an "arrogant" letter.
ADAPT's director Gary Ackerson says no bonuses have been given. According to the policy, bonuses would only be given in good years, when ADAPT had extra money. The bonuses, he adds, would never exceed one half of 1 percent of the total revenue. (This year ADAPT received over $28.7 million from the state. One half of 1 percent would be about $143,000.) Ackerson says ADAPT voted in the plan so that the agency isn't "locked into escalating salaries" when it wants to award executives. He also says ADAPT's salaries are low, compared to salaries in similar agencies in other parts of the country.
"We have a long relationship with Mrs. Schorr taking numbers from us and going to the paper and saying very outrageous things about us," he says. Schorr retorts: "If anybody is going to get incentive bonuses, it should be the people who actually work with the mentally ill."
This is what really riles the grandmotherly Schorr.
"For them to vote without any objection for a key-executive incentive plan," she says, "raises a question about insensitivity to the use of public monies and insensitivity to the fact that we need to get services down to people who most need them."
Ellie Schorr's mentally ill daughter is now 28 and "doing well." The experience has taught Schorr that "mental illness is very treatable--the brain can become ill just like any other part of the body."
"I'm really a very subdued lady," she adds. "But if I believe something, I'm not going to hide it. I don't believe in sweeping things under the rug."
"Arizona can't afford yet another blow to people's civil rights.