Sacramento County Blasted on Mental Health

SACRAMENTO (CN) – Sacramento County’s slash in mental health funding created a “shameful legacy of neglect,” increased suicide rates, overcrowded hospitals and put major strain on law enforcement, according to a grand jury report.
     The county’s decision to close its Crisis Stabilization Unit and eliminate half of its hospital beds for mentally ill patients failed to save money and transferred the cost to its hospitals, jails and law enforcement agencies, the report found.
     Facing economic slump and impending deficit, the county cut $14 million from mental health services in its 2009 budget, according to the June 24 report .
     “Suicide rates are up, inmates at the jail with mental illness have doubled, hospital emergency rooms are overwhelmed and police officers are diverted off the streets to deal with mental health crises; all attributable to county decisions,” the report states.
     After the budget cuts, suicide rates spiked by 16 percent in Sacramento County in 2010.
     The 2009 closing of a critical stabilization unit, where patients could be evaluated on their own behalf or taken by law enforcement, has left a huge void for treatment and care of mentally ill people in Sacramento, the grand jury found. It said the county ducked the responsibility of caring for people with mental illness and “shifted” it to community hospitals and law enforcement.
     Lack of resources for the mentally ill and their families has led to increased 911 calls and taken officers out of the field, forcing deputies to take patients to emergency rooms, said Sacramento County sheriff’s Lt. Santos Ramos.
     “The drop-off process used to take 5-10 minutes and officers were gone,” Ramos said in an interview. “Now we have to wait until they are medically cleared.”
     Ramos described a common scenario of deputies taking patients to overcrowded emergency rooms and waiting in line for them to be are evaluated. He said a typical emergency room trip can tie up deputies for two hours.
     “Anytime you close down a public resource there is going to be consequences to law enforcement and the volume of calls,” Ramos said.
     The 61-page report blasted the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors for cutting mental health services funding, despite being warned of the impact it would have on other county departments. Since 2009 the county has had to settle private lawsuits and local hospitals have been overmatched by increased numbers of mentally ill patients.
     The number of mental health patients admitted to county hospitals increased by 55 percent one year after the budget cuts and numbers today remain higher than 2009 levels. Hospitals are struggling to deal with the increase and patients must wait longer to be evaluated.
     “With limited bed availability in stand-alone psychiatric hospitals, mental health patients admitted through the community ERs can remain on a gurney in hospital hallways for 18 to 30 hours, and sometimes longer, waiting for a bed,” the report states.
     Due to increased 911 calls and diminished resources for dealing with 5150 (mental health) calls, law enforcement agencies have increased mental health training for its deputies, Ramos said. Since 2013, Sacramento County has sent more than 1,000 officers through 8-hour and 24-hour training classes.
     Ramos said the program was modeled after successful programs in San Diego and Memphis. The new program, along with mental health clinicians going on calls with deputies, has improved relations with the public and given officers another option than to rush patients to an emergency room.
     But Ramos said the sheriff’s department must fight to secure federal and state grants each year to fund the mental health training, and that the county needs to hold up its end of the deal.
     “County and local jurisdictions need to pony up to fund the training,” Ramos said.
     This is the second time a Sacramento County Grand Jury has focused on results of county budget cuts, the first coming in 2010. The grand jury is formed by 19 county residents and is a compilation of a year of research.
     Sacramento County spokesman Chris Andis said the county will present an official response this summer.
     “It is the county’s practice to not discuss the reports before we have reviewed them for accuracy and report to the board,” Andis said in an email. “We’re making significant investments in mental health services and building quality partnerships with the hospital system towards rebalancing services.”

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