Va. House to Review Psychiatric Care Gaps

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By Tim Craig and Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 25, 2007

RICHMOND, May 24 -- The Virginia House of Delegates will hold hearings this summer to consider solutions to problems in the mental health system exposed after Seung Hui Cho's shooting rampage at Virginia Tech.

The hearings in the Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee are the first step in what lawmakers say will be a flurry of potential legislative reforms to the mental health system after Cho killed 32 students and faculty members and then himself April 16.

Del. Phillip A. Hamilton (R-Newport News), the committee's chairman, said legislators want to review state funding of mental health services and the laws governing privacy, emergency custody orders and involuntary and voluntary commitments. The committee also plans to hear from private providers of mental health services and solicit suggestions from the public.

"We have to get a plan to make sure the system and processes don't break down again, so similar circumstances don't occur," Hamilton said.

He said the hearings, the first of which will be held June 18, will lay the groundwork for what could be a contentious debate in the General Assembly next year on mental health treatment and funding.

Although he has commissioned a separate investigation, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said Thursday he welcomes the legislative review.

"We are working toward the same goal," said Delacey Skinner, Kaine's communications director. "We all want to make sure we address any flaws or loopholes in the system that need to be addressed."

Cho's case underscores some of those flaws, officials have said. He was referred to the New River Valley Community Services Board in 2005 after Virginia Tech police said he had harassed two female students.

The board, the government mental health agency that serves Blacksburg, determined that Cho was "mentally ill and in need of hospitalization," according to court papers.

A day later, on Dec. 14, 2005, Paul M. Barnett, a special judge hearing Cho's case, decided that Cho was an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness and ordered him into involuntary outpatient treatment.

But three law enforcement sources familiar with Cho's medical records have said that Cho never received treatment. There was no follow-up from the community services board or the courts.

State law says that community services boards are responsible for setting up a treatment plan for mentally ill people released into the community for outpatient care. But Les Saltzberg, executive director of the New River Valley Community Services Board, said his agency did not create a treatment plan for Cho because the special justice did not tell the board of his order.

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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