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Canoga Park Clinic Helps Final Patients : Sadness, Anger and Many Referrals Mark Mental Health Center’s Last Day

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

The waiting room at the West Valley Mental Health Center was empty Friday. Boxes filled with medical files covered the floor in an inner office, and a sign informed visitors that the doors would close permanently at 5:30 p.m.

After more than a year of mounting financial problems and uncertainty about the future, Los Angeles County administrators announced Tuesday that the West Valley center was one of two outpatient mental health clinics that would be closed, bringing to five the number shut down this year.

Some West Valley staff members were visibly upset as they reflected on the gradual erosion of mental health services in the county and spoke of conversations with troubled patients who think that the system has abandoned them.

“What I personally am feeling is a tremendous sense of loss, like everything I’ve worked for is not valued,” therapist John N. McFee said, choking back tears. “It’s as if my life’s work is for naught.”

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By Friday, most of the 500 patients at the clinic in Canoga Park had already been referred to the Crisis Management Center in Van Nuys. “We had been anticipating this for a long time, so we’ve been trying to plan ahead,” said Kenneth Miya, West Valley clinic director.

The West Valley clinic was among eight centers initially threatened with closure last year. It was spared when county supervisors allocated $3.25 million to the ailing mental health system in March, 1988. But three other clinics--East Valley, the Coastal Community Mental Health Center in Carson and the Wilmington Mental Health Center--were forced to close, despite attempts by legal aid groups to keep them open.

When the East Valley clinic closed in June, about 350 patients were transferred to the Van Nuys crisis center. Employees at that center are now bracing for the onslaught of West Valley clinic patients.

“We haven’t adjusted to East Valley closing yet,” said Ken Stonebraker, a psychiatric social worker at the Van Nuys center.

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The Van Nuys crisis center, once the equivalent of an emergency room for the mentally ill, has 1,000 outpatients on its rolls and sees about 300 to 400 emergency patients a month.

During the past several months, the spacious waiting room at the Van Nuys center has become increasingly crowded, occasionally forcing patients to linger in the parking lot until they can be seen. The wait for a doctor has now stretched from two to four hours in some cases, and workers predict that it could get even longer beginning next week.

Bracing for Worst

West Valley workers say they have been bracing for the worst for most of the past year as county Department of Mental Health officials warned that they were running out of money. West Valley social workers and therapists urged their patients to seek help elsewhere whenever possible.

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Prospects for continued operations at the West Valley center became bleaker earlier this month when the Legislature adjourned without acting on a bill that would have provided counties with additional mental health money. Soon after, Mental Health Director Roberto Quiroz told the County Board of Supervisors that his department would need $7.6 million to avert more closings and reductions in services.

Despite their contention that mental health programs are a state responsibility, supervisors allocated $4.7 million Tuesday to keep several programs going. But the money fell nearly $3 million short of what would have been needed to save the West Valley center and the Hubert H. Humphrey clinic in South-Central Los Angeles and to stave off reductions at seven other clinics.

The latest round of cuts will affect between 3,000 and 4,000 patients, who will be forced to get treatment elsewhere or go without it, county officials say.

Letters went out Thursday to all West Valley patients, notifying them of the closure. Staff members called those with appointments and instructed them to report to the Van Nuys crisis center. They will be seen there by their own physicians, who are being transferred from the Canoga Park clinic.

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No One Laid Off

No staff members will be laid off because job openings exist throughout the county’s mental health system. The jobs were vacated during the past year as employees sought more stable jobs elsewhere, said Francis Dowling, chief deputy director of the Department of Mental Health.

Therapists and social workers at the West Valley clinic said that as recently as last year, they were able to offer individual and group therapy to mentally ill patients. But budget cuts have turned the county’s clinics into dispensaries of medication to keep indigent patients stable.

During the past year, the West Valley clinic discharged 300 patients because they no longer fell into the county’s target population of seriously or chronically mentally ill.

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“We don’t have the resources any more to take care of people less sick than that,” Dowling said. “The system has absorbed all it can absorb.”


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