2015 has been a good year for mental health reform in Washington. But there’s still more to do.
THE well-documented problems of Washington’s mental-health system are not completely about funding. A $90-million cut during the Great Recession widened existing gaps in access to treatment. But the system for years has been confusing and fragmented, often thwarting well-intended families from getting critical care for sick loved ones.
The state Legislature has taken admirable, broad strides this year toward fixing both the money and the policy problems, although its work is still not done.
As for the good news, Gov. Jay Inslee this week signed “Joel’s Law,” named for Joel Reuter, a bright, young software engineer whose illness made him believe he was shooting zombieswhen he was killed in 2013 by Seattle police.
Joel’s Law for the first time gives parents or guardians the right to directly appeal to judges for involuntary commitment of a loved one, a power previously reserved for mental-health evaluators. State Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Lakewood, and state Rep. Brady Walkinshaw, D-Seattle, deserve particular credit.
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This law can help more families now because Washington is finally boosting the number of state-funded psychiatric inpatient beds. This progress took a damning state Supreme Court ruling last year, and the shame of the state’s bottom-of-the-nation ranking for access to those beds. But lawmakers took note, and acted.
The Legislature is also following the lead of New York and California in creating a new program that allows judges to mandate outpatient treatment for people with serious mental illness.
Championed by state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, this assisted outpatient treatment program recognizes that some very mentally ill people don’t recognize they are ill and need medication. Research in New Yorkhas found this approach helps cut the vicious cycle of repeated hospitalization, reducing costs.
But the program only works if there are enough case managers and treatment professionals to serve them. Current budget proposals in Olympia fund less than half of the estimated $9 million a year needed to make it work. That number should be higher, to save both costs and lives.
Despite these gains, reform of Washington’s mental-health system remains a work in progress. A stinging rebuke by federal Judge Marsha Pechman last month mandates much quicker evaluation and treatment of mentally ill jail inmates.
In responding to that ruling, state lawmakers and regulators should think broadly about preventing mentally ill people from falling into the criminal-justice system, and diverting them out of it whenever possible. One proposal — to give prosecutors greater incentive to dismiss low-level crimes in favor of treatment — has bipartisan support. But, again, it needs sufficient funding.
Budget writers negotiating in Olympia on a final budget for 2015-17 should not leave this work undone.
Joel Reuter’s father, a former Republican Minnesota state lawmaker, accurately summed up the reform efforts this year: “It’s a monumental accomplishment to get both parties and both (legislative) bodies on board for this large of a change,” he said. But, the gains also acknowledge that “the system here was so broken.”
There is still more to do.