Mental health funding: ‘Little dent’ in big problem

The News TribuneMarch 30, 2014 

Emergency medical technicians from Rural/Metro wheel a patient out the Involuntary Commitment Court at Western State Hospital on Feb. 27, 2013. On that day, the patient was one of 10 individuals transported from local hospital emergency rooms to the court for commitment hearings.

SEAN ROBINSON — Staff writer

Democratic and Republican lawmakers were unable to reach a compromise and pass a capital budget this past session. Counties hoping to provide more desperately needed beds for the mentally ill should look at that failure as an opportunity to make lemonade.

As in, “When life hands you lemons … .”

The Legislature did approve $7.3 million to operate at least 48 extra detention beds and provide more service for involuntarily detained patients. It just didn’t approve construction money to build space for the beds designated for King, Thurston and Mason counties. (Pierce County received funding last year — including construction money — for a 16-bed evaluation and treatment facility in downtown Tacoma.)

The problem with failing to provide construction money this year is that people with mental illness so serious that they are involuntarily detained often need to be housed in facilities with extra security measures and materials that can withstand damage. Just renting out a house and putting in some beds doesn’t cut it.

With no construction money, agencies will have to get creative about how they use their funding to provide more beds. They should make every effort to use existing facilities and hunt for money needed for renovations.

Those beds are needed because of deep cuts made at Western State Hospital in Lakewood and Eastern State Hospital in Spokane during the recession. The emphasis has shifted to contracting out mental health services to private providers rather than offering them in institutional settings where Medicaid matching funds might not be available.

That’s left a huge gap in services for those with serious mental illness. It’s shameful that, compared to other states, Washington is next to last in providing psychiatric beds. Options are so limited for the mentally ill that they’ve ended up languishing for days in hospital emergency rooms or, if they commit crimes, being housed in local jails.

At least in jail they are fed and sheltered, and they’re often able to be evaluated and receive a minimal level of treatment.

Nationwide, jails and prisons are more likely than state hospitals to house the mentally ill — and that’s certainly the case in Washington. Jails and prisons have become de facto mental institutions.

State Rep. Dawn Morrell, D-Puyallup, was right when she referred to the Legislature’s mental health funding as “making little tiny dents.” Unfortunately, the state needs to do far much more if it is to adequately and respectfully address the needs of its citizens with serious mental illness.

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