Addressing O.C. mental health crisis

by Senator John Moorlach
Sunday, July 31, 2016

Also published at The Orange County Register

As a business major, and then a practicing C.P.A., I never imagined that I would spend much of my time in public office focusing on the mental health crisis we are facing in the U.S. The importance of addressing mental illness hit me front and center five years ago when Kelly Thomas, who was schizophrenic, was killed in an incident with the Fullerton Police Department. Immediately after his death, the Orange County Board of Supervisors was inundated with calls to action by parents of mentally ill children.

In response, I worked with then-state Senate pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, my colleagues on the Orange County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, which I chaired, and the Orange County Commission to End Homelessness, which I also chaired, on funding and implementing Laura’s Law in Orange County. One result was Senate Bill 585, which allowed for the use of Proposition 63 funds for Laura’s Law. By May of 2014, Orange County became the second county in California to fully implement Laura’s Law.

But Laura’s Law is only a single tool to address the many mental health issues facing Orange County and California. Consequently, my office met with Orange County health care representatives shortly after my special election to the state Senate in 2015 to explore additional ways to help them and others address the ever-increasing mental illness crisis. Stemming from that conversation, I authored Senate Bill 1273, to clarify that the Mental Health Services Act, a restricted revenue source, could fund crisis stabilization services for those individuals in mental health crises, in cases of both voluntary and involuntary admittance.

SB1273 addressed an area of ambiguity in the original version of the MHSA, which stated that its funding could be allocated to programs designed to support patients admitted on an involuntary basis, a basis by which many patients are admitted to county emergency rooms.

At present, the county has just 10 mental health evaluation and treatment services beds to service a county of over 3.1 million people. It is a common scenario that when a person in a mental health crisis comes into contact with a first responder, he or she is transported to a local hospital, waiting for hours, even days, in an emergency room that is designed to address medical needs, not psychiatric needs. This has put a significant strain on the 624 emergency room beds in Orange County.

And it’s not just affecting Orange County. This scenario is seen throughout the entire state. It’s a known fact that 1 in 5 adults experience serious mental illness annually and that 45 percent of California’s emergency rooms have zero inpatient psychiatric beds. This has become a crisis too large to ignore. And my colleagues in Sacramento have taken notice.

As SB1273 proceeded through the legislative process, it became apparent that there was an intense bipartisan will to focus on this issue. Sen. Bob Hertzberg, the Steinberg Institute, the Orange County Board of Supervisors, the city of Newport Beach, the California Hospital Association and many others showed widespread and outspoken support for SB1273.

As our office viewed this bill as a clarification, and not a substantive change, we inquired with the California Department of Health Care Services to see if there was an administrative solution to this issue. Last week, after months of background research, the DHCS issued Information Notice: 16-034 which stated that MHSA funding could be used to fund crisis stabilization services, an outcome I was hoping to achieve legislatively via SB1273.

Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett and fellow Supervisor Andrew Do stood by my side in a show of solidarity on this issue during our introductory press conference last fall to announce SB1273. They and their colleagues, in conjunction with the Orange County Health Care Agency, are in a position to make tremendous improvements for those incurring a mental health crisis.

There is an opportunity to provide more beds, including stand-alone facilities, that will provide immediate psychiatric care. Orange County currently has $71 million in MHSA funding available to provide crisis stabilization services. And annual Proposition 63 revenues will now be available to address this growing need. I look forward to watching for the great things that the entire Board of Supervisors will do in assisting in this great area of need. Freeing up emergency room beds is something that will benefit all of us in our moment of need. And providing professional and prompt services to those in a mental health crisis will bring comfort to their immediate family members, who are patiently waiting for such an opportunity in our community.