Mental-health care proves a hot topic

The need for increased funding is critical, a county official says.

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If the crowded hallway at the Walla Walla County commissioners' quarters wasn't enough to alert him, the chambers that quickly needed additional seating signaled to Daryl Daugs he had a hot topic on his hands.

He had already heard from about 100 people prior to Monday's Board of Commissioners meeting, said Daugs, director of the county's Department of Human Services.

"I'm glad people are interested," he said.

On March 7, Daugs presented the three commissioners with a proposal to raise the local sales tax rate by one-tenth of 1 percentage point, as allowed by state law, to help fund two or more psychiatric nurse practitioners and one substance abuse specialist for the county.

The proposal is in response to state and federal funding cuts that have sliced into the services DHS can provide, Daugs explained. In addition, money raised would allow his department to serve other Walla Walla residents who don't currently qualify for help due to Medicaid or Veterans Affairs ineligibility -- DHS has been financially unable to provide mental health or chemical dependency help outside that framework for several years.

If the tax increase is enacted and takes effect by July 1, it would raise between $350,000 to $400,000 this year. That amount would increase to $700,000 to $800,000 in 2012, Daugs has told commissioners. By law the money can only be used for its original purpose.

Fifteen other counties in the state have used the law since 2005 to augment shrinking Medicaid dollars and to reduce incarceration of mentally-ill patients, he said Monday.

With every other funding decision based on legislative action, the proposed taxation would "focus on flexible and local control," Daugs explained as he opened the hearing in front of 70-plus people.

A number of studies have documented the need for accessible mental-health services within communities, he said. A 2010 study by the state Department of Social and Health Services found emergency departments in nine hospitals across the state screened 96,000 high-risk patients, essentially providing care on a crisis basis. Other studies, including a 2009 one done by Walla Walla Community Council, showed untreated mental illness contribute to local school dropout rates. As well, it found jail and emergency rooms here are overused as providers of mental health assistance, Daugs told those in attendance.

If the tax hike is approved, commissioners and an advisory board should demand financial accountability and transparency to the public, he said.

Any DHS director should be required to pass benchmarks and provide reports that programs funded with the tax money are working. "Be continually evaluating," he advised commissioners.

A debut report would come at the end of 2012, since the first six months will entail planning and hiring.

This is a difficult economic time to be asking for this, Daugs acknowledged. However, the tax can be eliminated at any time. "You have the legislative authority."

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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