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Mental Health Expansion Planned

Times Staff Writer

With a final public hearing tonight, Los Angeles County officials are close to completing work on a three-year roadmap to expand mental health services with an estimated $267 million from a new statewide tax on millionaires.

After speaking with hundreds of community leaders, mental health service providers, care receivers and their families over the last 10 months, county officials have developed a comprehensive proposal.

Among the major initiatives: improving care for people with severe mental illnesses, adding three urgent psychiatric care centers and hiring advocates to help the mentally ill navigate through the county’s healthcare system.

“We involved everyone from law enforcement, to judges, to public defenders, to county counsel, to hospitals,” said Marvin Southard, the county’s director of mental health. “But the central voice was not the county, or the service providers, it was clients and families and what they saw as their needs.”

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The county’s Mental Health Department plans to present its final report to the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 11 and to state officials the following day. It hopes to begin implementing new programs in January.

Tonight’s hearing, which starts at 6 p.m. in the conference center at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles, is the last chance for the public to discuss the proposal before it goes to local and state officials.

Proposition 63, approved by voters last November, places a 1% surcharge on all taxable income exceeding $1 million and is expected to raise up to $800 million a year to pay for mental health services for the poor statewide.

The money is earmarked to fill the gap in services for the mentally ill that began when the state shut down institutions decades ago. Los Angeles County expects to receive about $89 million for each of the next three fiscal years.

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The county will receive a separate installment of funds -- about $40 million a year -- for prevention and early intervention services. It hopes to start planning how to spend this money next spring, Southard said.

The county plans to use the its $267-million installment over the next three years to fund several new mental health services, including:

* Providing a full range of services, including therapy, medication and housing, and help finding a job and developing a network of friends and community support for 4,500 children, juveniles and adults with severe mental illnesses, including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“If you looked at a severe attack of mental illness as you do Hurricane Katrina, you don’t just need immediate help and shelter, you need all the stuff you need to get life back,” Southard said.

This would expand existing services for adults and children, and would include new services for those aged 15 to 25.

* Establishing three psychiatric urgent care facilities either at or near emergency rooms at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar and Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance.

“Most people who don’t have insurance and have a psychiatric crisis are brought to one of four county emergency rooms,” Southard said. “Those are always way overcrowded and rather chaotic ... and not always the best places for these people to go.”

* Hiring “systems navigators” who can assist clients and their families who are in crisis. They would be employed by the county’s Mental Health Department, or community agencies, and would “really know the system” and be an advocate for clients, Southard said.

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County officials say they hope the funds from Proposition 63 will ultimately allow for a broader range of mental health services to help more clients return to full lives.

“We want to rely more on mainstreaming clients,” Southard said.

“A component of our plan relies on self-help and client empowerment. That’s one of the central focuses of what we’re trying to create.”


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