Va. lawmakers back more time to find beds for those in need of immediate psychiatric care

In Virginia, a proposal to give mental health workers more time to find beds for people who need immediate psychiatric care cleared a House subcommittee Wednesday, as lawmakers move swiftly to respond to an attack on Sen. R. Creigh Deeds by his son.

A House Courts of Justice subcommittee cleared several proposals, including one to extend the current time limit of six hours to find psychiatric beds for individuals in crisis by two hours, and if a bed cannot be found by that deadline, to require state facilities to provide a bed of last resort.

Under current law, a magistrate can issue an emergency custody order to hold someone for a mental health evaluation for up to four hours. The magistrate can extend the order for up to two more hours to allow enough time to find a psychiatric bed or complete a medical evaluation. If a bed is not found within six hours, the person is free to go.

That is what happened when a bed could not be found for Austin “Gus” Deeds, 24, in November. After he was released, Gus Deeds stabbed his father and then killed himself with a hunting rifle. The events leading up to his burst of violence are the subject of at least three investigations. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) returned to work earlier this month still bearing scars on his face from the attack and has told his story on“60 Minutes” and “Anderson Cooper 360” in hopes of rallying support for reform.

The proposals are now headed to the full House Courts of Justice Committee. The two additional hours to find a bed falls short of a recommendation made Tuesday by the Governor’s Task Force on Mental Health and a plan by Creigh Deeds. The task force endorsed extending the emergency custody order to 12 hours. Deeds’s proposal of a limit of 24 hours cleared a Senate subcommittee last week.

But having the state provide a bed of last resort addresses many of the concerns about the consequences of missing that deadline, lawmakers said.

Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), chairman of the subcommittee, said Wednesday that lawmakers prefer to respond more narrowly to the Deeds tragedy and expressed reluctance to take up broader reforms.

That is likely to disappoint members of the governor’s task force, which endorsed extending the time someone can be held involuntarily for treatment from 48 hours to 72 hours. It also supported requiring at least 24 hours to pass before a commitment hearing, in order to give the individual time to stabilize and possibly avoid involuntary hospitalization.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has said he will support mental-health-care-reform efforts and reiterated that during an impromptu stop at the task force meeting, telling the panel of doctors, law enforcement, advocates, community service board directors and state officials that he wanted them to be innovative.

The biggest stumbling block to broader reform, however, is unlikely to be a dearth of ideas, but of money.

John Pezzoli, a high-ranking state behavioral health official, sketched out a plan to increase the number of secure evaluation sites and crisis stabilization beds, among other measures, that would make it easier for community mental health workers to find beds before an emergency order runs out. But Pezzoli’s caveat was “depending on funding.”

Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Hazel, who co-chairs the task force, said he wants to require that any reforms passed be reenacted in two years to force policymakers to look at what worked and what didn’t.

“Whatever is done in legislation is a beginning,” he said, “not an end.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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