Arizona’s law on treating people with serious mental illness is strong — on paper.

The law requires the state to care for all of Arizona’s seriously mentally ill by establishing a “community residential treatment system.”

It was groundbreaking when it passed in 1979, but now the statute lies dormant, a victim of the state’s budget crunch.

Gov. Jan Brewer threatened to repeal the law as part of her budget proposal in January 2010 — and she had the votes to do so. Instead, lawyers involved in a 30-year lawsuit forcing the state to provide certain mental-health services agreed in March 2010 to suspend their suit until June 30, 2012.

In effect, that left the state free not to enforce the law till then.

“Our statutes, our laws are the best in the country,” said Charles “Chick” Arnold, the Phoenix lawyer who filed the lawsuit in 1981. It forced Maricopa County to provide services to those with serious mental illness and established standards for the rest of the state to follow.

“We’ve got a statute, but it doesn’t do anybody any good. Under the cover of the fiscal crisis, this whole system is being emasculated,” Arnold said.

A week after the lawsuit was suspended, Gov. Brewer signed a budget that cut the benefits provided to 28,000 people with serious mental illness who are not enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. To save about $65 million, the state stopped paying for brand-name drugs, case managers or transportation for this group, though benefits remained the same for those enrolled in AHCCCS.

The suspension of the lawsuit was necessary for the cuts to go forward, said Joe Kanefield, the governor’s general counsel, who negotiated the suspension of the suit. Otherwise, the state would have been under court order to provide services it could no longer afford.

While the cuts have been painful, it was crucial to preserve the requirement that the state treat the mentally ill, said Anne Ronan, the attorney at the Arizona Center for Disability Law who agreed to suspend the lawsuit.

“It’s an important right that people have in Arizona that they don’t have in a lot of states,” Ronan said. “It’s been the driver that’s forced the various state agencies and the Legislature to pay attention to a population that doesn’t have a voice.”

Still, some say the suspension of the lawsuit — and thereby the enforcement of the law — simply reflects a long-standing reality in Arizona: The law works only to the extent that the Legislature will fund it. And if people don’t like how well the Legislature funds care for the seriously mentally ill, they can just change the law.

Said Robert Sorce, assistant deputy director for the state’s division of behavioral health: “We can only do what the Legislature appropriates money for us to do.” 

Contact reporter Tim Steller at 807-8427 or at