Opinion Pieces

Seattle Times: A bipartisan plan to tackle broken mental-health system

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Seattle, December 18, 2016 | comments
We all know it’s not acceptable. In some instances, it’s unimaginable. So how is it possible that in many parts of our state, the largest provider of mental-health services is the county jail?
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We all know it’s not acceptable. In some instances, it’s unimaginable. So how is it possible that in many parts of our state, the largest provider of mental-health services is the county jail?

We face constant reminders of the extraordinary unmet needs in providing adequate care for folks going through mental-health or substance-abuse crises. We see it in increased crime as too many law-enforcement officers are asked to do the jobs of mental-health professionals. We see it on our streets, with increased homelessness and a substantial strain on our social-safety net. We see it in local hospitals that lack adequate behavioral-health capacity and face the impossible choice of discharging someone in mental crisis or holding that person in an emergency department for weeks.

Perhaps most important, we see it in families struggling to care for someone they love.

It also hits our budgets. This year, Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told USA Today that mental illness costs our country $444 billion a year in medical costs and lost productivity.

There are no simple solutions to addressing these challenges, but we’re working on it.

In fact, Congress set aside partisanship and recently passed comprehensive legislation that supports communities seeking to combat opioid abuse, invests in evidence-based prevention and strengthens community-based mental-health treatment.

Despite that significant progress, too many communities still lack the resources to provide a safe place for someone in severe mental crisis. Across the nation, the availability of beds for folks who need a short-term stay with the right medical professionals has plummeted to unsustainable levels.

Generally, to meet the needs of people in crisis, health experts believe, communities should have about 40 to 60 inpatient mental-health beds per 100,000 individuals. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, America has just 11.7 beds per 100,000 people. Washington state is even further behind at 10.2 beds per 100,000, with even worse statistics at local and county levels. The need for more inpatient beds and quality mental-health facilities has never been starker.

But when local partners come together to build a facility to provide this inpatient care that would move the needle, all too often they can’t find the financing to get started.

In Pierce County, local leaders are working to find resources to advance a joint plan between MultiCare and CHI Franciscan to build a 120-bed behavioral-health facility. In Southwest Washington, plans exist to build a much-needed diversion, crisis stabilization, and involuntary treatment facility. These projects will provide critical care for local communities, but the costs associated with them are a significant local financial burden.

It’s time to make sure these efforts have a partner at the national level. That’s why we’ve introduced bipartisan legislation that would lend a hand. Specifically, it would authorize the Department of Health and Human Services to provide loans and loan guarantees for the construction of psychiatric and substance-abuse facilities.

This way, these local projects will have a better chance of getting off the ground to get people the care they need. It will put people to work building new state-of-the-art facilities. It will ensure people in mental crisis get the care they need. It will also create quality jobs for mental-health professionals in regions where they are sorely needed.

The bill also makes sense for taxpayers: It will help us reduce some of the drain we’ve seen on our nation’s pocketbook from leaving people stuck in jail cells or on the street. In fact, the loan program is designed to pay for itself.

Our state and nation are at a crossroads. We can continue with a system that leaves our communities stuck in a loop of patients cycling through emergency rooms and jail cells. Or we can move forward efforts that help halt this revolving door and create an environment where patients can get proper treatment. The choice is clear.

By Derek Kilmer and Jaime Herrera Beutler

Special to The Seattle Times

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