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McDonnell urges mental health care reform

January 8, 2014 | Virginia News

News Image BY MICHAEL MARTZ, Richmond Times-Dispatch

Gov. Bob McDonnell has set a high standard for a new task force he appointed to find ways to fill the gaps in Virginia’s fragmented mental health system: No one in Virginia should go without the clinical care they need in a psychiatric emergency.

“This is one of those areas, like homeland security, where we should be 100 percent right 100 percent of the time,” McDonnell told the Task Force on Improving Mental Health Services and Crisis Response in its first meeting Tuesday.

The consequence of failure already is clear from the fate of Austin C. “Gus” Deeds, who stabbed his father, Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and then killed himself Nov. 19, just 13 hours after being released from emergency custody for a mental evaluation.

The reasons for that failure remain in dispute, with conflicting accounts of whether an appropriate psychiatric hospital bed was available the previous day for the 24-year-old Deeds, and, if not, why not.

But the state watchdog who is investigating the incident challenged the task force to meet the standard set by the governor — zero tolerance for failure to provide the clinical care necessary for Virginians who pose a threat to themselves or others.

G. Douglas Bevelacqua, the state inspector general for behavioral health, said the state should embrace the “core value … that every person with mental illness, who is evaluated by a pre-admission screener and determined to meet the criteria for a (temporary detention order), is admitted to a psychiatric facility.”

“Every person, every time,” he told the task force.

The 36-member task force already is discovering the difficulty of finding solutions for a state system that is administered by local mental health agencies, dependent on shrinking state and private psychiatric hospitals, and reliant on overstretched police and sheriff’s departments to transport mentally ill people in crisis.

Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a longtime advocate for mental health services, called for continued efforts to extend the time allowed for emergency custody and temporary detention orders — but police chiefs oppose anything that ties up officers any longer from doing their jobs.

“It doesn’t address the real problem — the failure to identify and secure a bed in the current legal time frame,” said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.

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