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Northam targets overcrowding of mental health hospitals in new budget

Delay in the Western State Hospital expansion project. | Credit: WHSV
Delay in the Western State Hospital expansion project. | Credit: WHSV(WHSV)
Published: Jan. 9, 2020 at 5:49 PM EST
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Governor Ralph Northam is hoping to target the issue of overcrowding at mental health hospitals across the state as the General Assembly considers new legislation in its 2020 session.

Northam has set aside money in his

, which would provide additional funding for community services.

The 'bed of last resort' legislation passed in 2014 was aimed at never turning someone away who is in a crisis.

But that has led to overcrowding, so the governor is now looking at how to keep people from getting to that crisis point by allocating $177 million for community services.

Systems Transformations Excellence Performance of Virginia, or STEP-Virginia, is a program that started in 2017 to put more emphasis on community care, rather than hospitalization. It focuses on early access to care and services, whole health screenings, and outpatient services.

The additional funding from the state would allow those services to be expanded and provided in a more in-depth way. That would help more people where they are in life, rather than removing them from the community, and before they feel like they're in a crisis.

"They've gotten those services when they needed them, and so we were able to divert from the hospital and keep people in the community," Ellen Harrison, executive director of Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board, said. "Talk about healthy families. That's really what we're trying to build is healthy families and healthy communities."

All 40 community services boards across the state now have same-day access, rather than scheduled appointments for people who come seeking service.

Harrison said this has helped increase intake from 50 percent to 100 percent. In 2019, H-R CSB had 506 intakes for adults and 430 intakes for children.

By providing more outpatient and comprehensive crisis services, more people can get the help they need before feeling like they have nowhere else to turn.

Harrison said avoiding inpatient care, when possible, is the best course of action.

"People can stay with their family, they can stay with their support system, some can continue to work," Harrison said. "It really means a stronger and a faster recovery, and so the person is going to feel better about how they interact with others and how they build out their life."

With the different boards across the state offering same day access to care, people feel more confident in how to deal with problems.

With the General Assembly's approval, the money allotted in Northam's budget will be set aside for the Community Services Boards and the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to get together and then determine what specific services and areas that money will go toward.

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