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Mental health chief seeks a solution

Hennessy-Fiske is a Times staff writer.

Los Angeles County’s chief mental health official said Tuesday that he is working to reduce the number of times his staff forwards emergency assistance calls involving the mentally ill to police, a practice that has grown over the last year as fewer hospital beds have been available to treat such patients.

Marvin J. Southard, called before the Board of Supervisors after news reports highlighted the problem, told the board he is in talks with county health officials to find better options.

“This issue is really an issue of indigent care at the county hospitals,” Southard told Supervisor Mike Antonovich during questioning. “We contract with private hospitals to provide indigent care, but there are some patients only county hospitals will accept.”

Mental health workers have increasingly turned to law enforcement officials to handle emergency calls because hospitals are required by law to take emergency mental health patients transported by police. If a county mental health worker brings people in for treatment, facilities are not compelled to accept them.

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As of last month, there were 2,562 beds available for mental health patients in Los Angeles County, records show, and only about 200 of them were at county hospitals, which are required to admit poor and uninsured patients.

According to department records, mental health staff responded to 10,003 calls this year, down 20% from 12,722 calls last year. The increased police response to mental health emergencies was first reported this month in the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

Critics of the current emergency response system for the mentally ill, including law enforcement officers, said Southard’s response Tuesday amounted to a continuation of the status quo. They faulted county supervisors for not demanding a more immediate fix.

Southard said his office refers some cases to law enforcement for good reason, such as when an individual is armed or has threatened suicide. In other instances, he said, his department is trying to screen out people before they reach the hospital.

One possible relief could come if the county reinstates a rotating list of county hospitals as default destinations for mentally ill patients. The county used to maintain such a list, but stopped in 2006, when an acute bed shortage followed the closure of King / Drew Medical Center, Southard said.

Southard said he is also trying to shift more mentally ill patients from hospitals to four county-run or county-contracted urgent care centers, where they can stay up to 23 hours.

Commissioner Barry Perrou, a former Los Angeles County sheriff’s sergeant who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said he was disappointed with Southard’s answers.

“We haven’t resolved the problem, -- we still have people in the back of our cars,” Perrou said, noting that L.A. county law enforcement officials respond to about 1,000 emergency calls for the mentally ill each month. “Deferring to 911 and our hospital system is not a solution.”

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Andres Ramirez, a member of the commission overseeing county emergency medical services who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said more needs to be done.

“It’s clearly not within the county mission of providing care and services to allow a mental health patient to be transported in handcuffs,” Ramirez said. “These individuals are not criminals.”

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molly.hennessy-fiske @latimes.com

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