A psychiatric bed registry that was part of a package of reforms passed by Virginia lawmakers this year is not working as hoped, state mental health officials said Tuesday.
The registry was created to provide clinicians real-time information to help place Virginians in need of involuntary commitment in public and private hospitals. Health and Human Resources Secretary William A. Hazel Jr. told a four-year study committee headed by Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) that the registry is being used about 2,500 times a month but that its effectiveness has been stymied by confusion about what “real-time” means. Hazel said his agency plans to propose ways to tighten the definition.
The study committee, the registry and other reforms were created after the November 2013 attack on Deeds by his son, Gus Deeds, who needed mental health help but was sent home by authorities because a psychiatric bed could not be found for him. The 24-year-old stabbed his father, then fatally shot himself.
Hazel appeared before the committee to relay the recommendations of a separate mental health reform task force, set up by former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R).
Hazel’s report highlighted some of the challenges of fixing the state’s long-troubled system.
He told lawmakers that five people were released even though an emergency evaluator had recommended involuntary commitment. Hazel described the cases as “outliers.” They included one person who was in critical condition and was hospitalized and another who was taken to jail.
In one case, a magistrate did not approve a temporary detention order.
The problem of funding dominated much of the discussions.
Many of the recommendations require additional funding. However, just a few months after the last set of reforms passed, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced up to 565 layoffs and other cost-saving measures, the result of a projected multiyear deficit of $2.4 billion.
Financial constraints were cited frequently during a debate about whether to endorse all 25 recommendations made by the governor’s task force. The panel was split between those who wanted to embrace the entire report and others who wanted to consider budget realities and prioritize recommendations.
“We don’t have to wait four years when we have already identified issues that may have modest or no cost” and “have immediate life-or-death consequences,” Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Albemarle) said, referring to a handful of proposals such as improving the qualifications of emergency evaluators.
Advocates said the funding increases approved this past summer have made a difference, such as supporting mobile crisis teams for children, including two teams in Northern Virginia. They said they plan to press for more resources.
Budget cuts have undermined past reform efforts, including funding increases passed after a massacre at Virginia Tech.
The purpose of the panel, Deeds noted several times during the hearing, was to provide a consistent focus on mental health reform instead of having policymakers continue to lurch from one crisis to the next.
Asked afterward whether he thought his colleagues’ commitment to reform would be as strong as it was last session, Deeds said: “Last year, a lot of my scars were pretty fresh, and certainly that had something to do with it. I hope we can continue that cooperation.”