Pierce County and Tacoma know a little something about taking life-saving services to the streets and delivering help directly to people in need.
They do it in traditional ways, with first-rate emergency responders who provide care at the point of crisis.
They do it innovative ways, too. In the 1980s, the city-county health department started sponsoring a needle-exchange van to fight the AIDS epidemic. The first publicly funded program of its kind in the U.S, it continues to meet intravenous drug users on their own turf.
That same direct-to-customer approach is overdue to serve people with acute mental illness. They can suffer psychiatric episodes every bit as dangerous as a car crash or heart attack.
Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier wants to immediately deploy a pair of mobile behavioral-health intervention teams, one assigned to the east side of the county and the other the west side.
It’s a sensible, compassionate plan — as well as aggressive, with no guarantee of success. It can be paid for with available money, thanks to strong tax revenues and surplus funds.
Dammeier included it in his $10.7 million supplemental budget for 2017, which he released in March. Among other investments, it calls for homeless veteran housing and a 16-bed diversion center for involuntarily detained psych patients.
Now the County Council, which at first appeared receptive, is poised to derail much of the plan, or at least push it back until 2018 after evaluating the costs, benefits, uncertainties and contingencies.
We’ve seen this movie before, and we don’t like how it ends.
In December, after several months of study that highlighted the irrefutable need for additional resources, the council narrowly rejected a sales-tax increase that would have generated $10 million a year for mental health and chemical dependency services. Pierce is the only urban Washington county without such a tax.
By comparison, Dammeier’s $4.7 million behavioral-health proposal represents a drop in the bucket. The County Council should view it as a down payment. At the very least, it should go forward with the mobile crisis team concept.
The county would contract with outside mental-health professionals. They would respond to calls from cops and paramedics who don’t have time or expertise for psychiatric care. The frustration was palpable at a public hearing Tuesday; one local fire district leader said his crews sometimes wait an hour or more for mental-health support to arrive.
Timely, on-the-scene help is likely to keep some unstable people from being shunted into hospital rooms or jail cells, a common practice that has invited condemnation from local judges. Psychiatric boarding is not only inhumane, it puts a drain on public resources.
It just might save the life of someone you love. Nearly 20 percent of Pierce County adults meet the criteria for a mental health disorder, while 11 percent of youths age 12-17 have had a major depressive incident in the past year.
Untreated mental illness also factors into two of our region’s biggest scourges: homelessness and opioid abuse. Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland last week called for emergency action to combat the homeless problem; mobile response teams are one promising tactic.
In King County, for instance, a public health van started running last summer, offering aid to people on the streets for both physical ailments and mental health issues.
The Pierce County Council will come back in a few weeks and take final action on the mid-year budget windfall.
Council members Rick Talbert and Derek Young want to see Dammeier’s mobile teams spared. They’re persuasive in arguing that something must be done to shake county officials out of their trance. The council majority is chronically averse to think generously and creatively about behavioral health funding.
“We need to be ready to run through walls rather than showing too much restraint,” Young said at Tuesday’s hearing — perhaps a bit overdramatically, but we get his point.
If the program doesn’t prove effective, he noted, officials can always change contractors or try a different idea.
The dreary alternative is to let the debate drag into 2018 budget negotiations. Councilwoman Pam Roach, for one, favors the road of procrastination; she complained that the “psych mobiles” (her words) would be an overly expensive experiment, with highly paid workers cruising around in brand new vehicles.
Welcome to Pierce County, where officials could spend months fussing over the make, model and paint color of crisis response vans, and whether to use snow tires in the winter.
For once, the council should take a calculated risk on behalf of the county’s unreached mentally ill population, and send professional reinforcements out into the streets forthwith.
Summer is coming. Let’s get this show on the road.