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Court Delays Order for Referee to Weigh Issues in Lawsuit on Mental-Health Cuts

Times Staff Writer

Acting on a county challenge, the 4th District Court of Appeal on Thursday delayed a judge’s order that a referee consider the issues in a suit filed over the county’s cuts in mental health services.

The county contends in its appeal, filed late Wednesday afternoon, that state law allows the referee process to be used in such cases only to consider matters of fact, not matters of law, said Paul Bruce, deputy county counsel.

On Oct. 31, Superior Court Judge Robert E. May ordered that both procedural and constitutional issues raised in the suit be considered by a referee, retired Appeal Court Justice Robert O. Staniforth. May ordered that Staniforth report back to him with a recommended ruling.

Now the Court of Appeal will determine whether that process will be allowed to begin.

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Rosemary Bishop, the Legal Aid Society of San Diego attorney who is handling the case, said she was disappointed once again by the delay in resolving the suit. During the interim, she said, poor people will be denied needed care because of the $3.2 million in cuts in the county’s mental health budget. The cuts took effect Oct. 1.

She noted, however, that the Court of Appeal acted quickly on the county’s request to delay the judge’s order and therefore might act quickly on the appeal itself.

The county’s mental health clinics serve as a last resort for residents who cannot afford mental health care any other way. Because of the cuts, the clinics instituted a “triage” system that allows only the most severely ill to receive help. Critics say it emphasizes short-term crisis care rather than the continuing care that people with chronic mental problems need.

Legal Aid contends in its suit that California law requires the county to properly care for mental health problems of the medically indigent, just as it must care for their physical health problems. The county is denying that contention.

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Legal Aid is also challenging the procedural steps used to plan and implement the cuts.


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