State of mental health system worries leaders

It helps to talk about it.

A group politicians, health care providers, advocates, recipients of mental health care and a representative of the criminal justice crowded into an Oak Harbor woman’s home Thursday to discuss the outrages of the mental health system.

It’s an underfunded, complicated mess in Washington state, everyone agreed.

Patricia Little, a member of North Sound Mental Health Regional Advisory Board, brought the diverse group together to informally lobby State Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen about improving the system.

They talked about how extremely hard it is for folks who need help to navigate through the red tape and bureaucracy; how administrators instead of doctors are making decisions about medication; how state and federal requirements hamstring local caregivers.

Since medical and other help for people with mental illness is so limited and difficult to obtain, they said the problem has been largely shifted to the criminal justice system.

De Dennis, Island County jail chief, said he ends up “warehousing the mentally ill.” Since there’s not enough beds at Western State Hospital, for example, patients are kept in jails.

“It takes up to six months of incarceration to get them proper care at Western Washington or another facility,” he said, adding that jail only aggravates mental problems.

Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton, a member of the Governor and Legislature’s Task Force on the Mental Health System, said putting a person with a mental illness in jail is like locking up a person who needs a new kidney until a donor becomes available.

A mental illness is a disease no different than any other ailment, they all agreed.

Shelton pointed out that the criminal justice system is the most expensive way to deal with people who have mental health issues. He estimated that the jail spends as much as $250,000 a year to house mentally ill folks.

Worse yet, many people with mental health diseases have no place at all to go.

“Our society has come to a place where it’s acceptable to have people with mental illnesses on the streets,” Shelton said.

Sen. Haugen took in all the comments, but pointed out that much of the problems come from the federal government.

The state mental health system took a major blow when the Bush Administration decided that the state can no longer use savings from the Medicaid system to treat mental illnesses. The state Legislature came to the rescue with $80 million, but it didn’t alleviate all the money problems.

For reasons too complex for him to completely grasp, Shelton said the Medicaid rate is decreasing for mentally ill patients in Washington state. And the state still doesn’t have enough “matching money” to maximize federal grants, he said.

The folks at the meeting agreed that acting proactively — instead of reacting — is more effective and would safe tax dollars, but that it’s a challenge to get government to take that path.

In the end, Haugen said she would do what she can to help, but warned that “a lot of people will be in line” to ask for money from the better-than-expected tax revenues when the Legislature convenes in January.

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