EDITORIAL: Governor’s council bolsters state’s mental health system

It was a move straight from the textbook on political crisis management. When a disaster of incompetence or nonperformance emerges, an elected executive appoints a task force, or a blue ribbon commission, or a select panel, or any group of people willing to address the outrage. Said task force then takes forever to produce a report that makes a nice paperweight come Christmastime, and nothing improves.

One year ago today, Gov. Brian Sandoval signed an executive order establishing the Governor’s Behavioral Health and Wellness Council to address the state’s shameful mental health care system. The busing of patients to other states without adequate support had become a national story, and emergency rooms in Southern Nevada were so full of mentally ill people that hospitals had to turn away ambulances. The mentally ill who weren’t taking up space in hospital hallways were landing in jail, again and again. And the idea that yet another task force could turn around yet another Nevada crisis seemed hopeless.

Yet, on Tuesday, the council was hearing the latest batch of good news that is directly attributable to the panel’s work.

Valley Hospital Medical Center announced it was opening 20 new psychiatric beds, with 28 more to come as staffing was hired. As reported by the Review-Journal’s Yesenia Amaro, that space comes on top of 14 new beds made available last month at the Las Vegas WestCare triage center. The increase in treatment capacity has happened because this summer, the state more than doubled its Medicaid reimbursement rate for psychiatric care.

Mary Woods, spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, told the council that as of 8 a.m. Tuesday, 85 people were in emergency rooms waiting for transfer to a psychiatric facility. During the peak of the ER crowding crisis, that number routinely exceeded 200, which caused hospitals to declare “internal disasters.”

The 20-member council has done a tremendous job this year, demonstrating that it is possible, with good leadership, for state government to improve urgent problems between legislative sessions. And the council’s work will help focus the 2015 Legislature on additional steps needed to continue improvements. Two of them were discussed Tuesday: increasing compensation for state psychiatrists, to attract qualified candidates; and helping psychiatrists licensed in other states more quickly gain the ability to practice in Nevada.

Far from a cynical exercise in deflection, Gov. Sandoval’s mental health council has been a highly productive success. Here’s hoping the 2015 Legislature can match its accomplishments.

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