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Tuesday, March 19 , 2019, 10:43 pm | Partly Cloudy 52º

 
 
 
 

Budget-Challenged ADMHS Facing Radical Changes Under County’s Recommendations

Supervisors may consider, among other measures, consolidating the Mental Health and Public Health departments

In the midst of a dire budget outlook, some serious changes may be on the way for Santa Barbara County’s Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services, if recommendations by the Board of Supervisors come to fruition.

The supervisors got a glimpse Tuesday of the budget challenges endemic to the department, but also gave some surprising recommendations of their own.

Led by Supervisor Salud Carbajal, the board recommended that an outside contractor examine the pros and cons of combining ADMHS with the Public Health Department in order to solve some of mental health’s financial problems.

“A new paradigm is needed for the mental health department,” Carbajal said. “I, for too long, have been waiting anxiously to see the drastic changes that have been needed. ... It’s time to take a different approach.”

Another recommendation is the formation of a Blue Ribbon Task Force to examine the department and which would report to the county CEO’s office, not ADMHS.

The recommendations come as county supervisors have expressed a weariness of ADMHS’ long-standing financial woes.

“I’ve been listening to mental health problems for 14 years now, and they don’t seem to get much better,” Supervisor Joni Gray said.

ADMHS is facing a $6.4 million deficit this year, the biggest portion of which is related to the denial of Medi-Cal claims. Other large expenses for the county were two audits conducted by the federal oversight body, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, that called for changes to the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility, costing the county $1.5 million.

ADMHS Director Ann Detrick told the board on Tuesday that the department has identified staff concessions and other measures to help close the budget gap. However, it still faces a $3.3 million balance it’s not able to pay.

To solve that, drastic measures would have to be taken, such as eliminating beds for people in psychiatric crisis and eliminating homeless outreach programs, a step that Detrick and the county supervisors were none too eager to take on.

“Professionally, I just could not advise that,” Detrick said. “I don’t think it would be safe for the community.”

Supervisor Doreen Farr said she was surprised that the department’s staffing levels had stayed the same, “which is pretty unusual considering what the other departments have gone through.”

She said she would like to see department officials come back with cuts they could make without the elimination of programs.

Gray suggested that a task force be formed, similar to the one assembled to oversee the building of a county jail.

“There are lots of talented folks that should be able to help us,” she said.

Two emergency room doctors from Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital spoke during the public comment period. Dr. Jason Prystowsky said the department had experienced a surge in the number of mentally ill people, and Dr. Chris Flynn urged the supervisors to “find better solutions.”

He said the length of stay has gone from 10 to 15 hours for the average psych patient as the emergency department tries to reach out to all types of urgent medical needs.

“If we have increasing psych burdens, we’re displacing citizens to the hallways,” Flynn said.

Mental Health Commissioners Jim Rohde and Charles Huffines also spoke, supporting ADMHS administration.

“The situation in the emergency rooms greatly concerns me,” Rohde said, adding that costs could become greater if the county doesn’t continue funding existing programming.

George Greene of SEIU 620, a labor group that represents ADMHS staff, spoke against a potential merger. He said his idea of a “new paradigm” would be to commit the same amount of contributions from the county’s General Fund to ADMHS that Public Health gets.

Department officials will be back in May for more budget discussion, and the county will submit a request for proposals for an outside organization to evaluate consolidating public and mental health.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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