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Improving state’s mental health care

The glare of publicity over what some claim is patient dumping — which has come to be known as “Greyhound therapy” — by the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas has not been welcome news in our state.

But it may offer a silver lining if it focuses policymakers and the general public on the desperate need for more funding to serve the needs of people with mental illness.

Legislation being considered in Washington would go a long way toward solving treatment funding shortfalls, and our state sorely needs it.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, of our state’s approximately 2.6 million residents, close to 89,000 adults and 28,000 children live with serious mental illness. The state/federal Medicaid program has become the primary funding source for mental health services in this country, and yet after decades of budget cuts, this essential safety net of services is severely weakened.

According to NAMI, from 2009 to 2012, spending on mental health services in Nevada was cut by more than $50 million.

Those suffering from mental illness can be helped. Community-based services offered by WestCare in Nevada — including Community Triage Centers in Las Vegas and Reno as well as numerous residential and outpatient services — improve lives and make our cities and towns stronger.

The bill pending before the House and Senate, the Excellence in Mental Health Act, would restore a steady funding stream for community behavioral health centers in Medicaid funding over 10 years.

Services funded by the act would be aimed at uninsured and low-income Americans with the most serious and persistent mental health conditions — those most in need of help and least able to access it.

Recent gun tragedies have made the need for community mental health centers even more obvious. Regardless of one’s opinion about gun control laws, Americans nationwide recognize that we must make mental health and prevention programs a high priority.

National estimates are that one in four people will experience mental illness during their lifetime, and that people with serious mental illnesses generally experience a shortened life span — on average, 25 years shorter than people without mental illness. Put another way, people living with a mental illness have a life expectancy similar to that experienced by the general population living in sub-Saharan Africa.

If the excellence act passes, states would be able to fund a broad range of mental health services, including 24-hour crisis care, increased integration of physical and behavioral health needs as well as expanded support for families of people living with mental health issues. After years of funding cuts from federal and state budgets, this money would make a real difference in Nevada.

After the news broke about Rawson-Neal busing patients to cities across the country, Gov. Brian Sandoval and Mike Willden, director of the state Health and Human Services Department, pledged to get to the bottom of the matter and take any necessary remedial action beyond those already taken. I urge them to do nothing less.

But I also hope that the controversy will serve to remind the public that providing community-based mental health services is a good investment. When people receive timely and effective treatment, it reduces expensive ER visits and hospitalizations.

Members of law enforcement recognize the potential savings as well. They have seen their resources increasingly diverted away from public safety in order to address unmet mental health needs.

Organizations across the political spectrum are supportive of spending more money on mental health care in order to fix a system that is clearly broken.

While there is broad bipartisan support for improving access to behavioral health services, the fate of the excellence act is uncertain. The legislation was to be considered as part of the gun control package debated in Congress in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy. Ultimately, the gun legislation was too controversial. When it was defeated, the excellence act was set aside.

The case managers, therapists, psychiatrists, nurses and counselors in our state are ready to be part of the solution. But we can’t do so without adequate funding. Sen. Harry Reid — a champion of suicide prevention efforts — has pledged to bring the excellence act to the Senate floor. This important legislation deserves a vote by the full Senate.

And the people of Nevada, especially our most vulnerable, deserve no less.

Richard Steinberg is the president of WestCare Foundation Inc., a group of nonprofit organizations headquartered in Las Vegas that offers behavioral health services in Nevada, 14 other states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Guam.

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