Nevada governor convenes special council to improve state’s mental health system

12/17/2013 12:00 AM

10/07/2014 10:13 PM

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval on Monday announced the creation of a special council to review the state’s embattled mental health care system and offer recommendations for improvements.

The announcement followed a Sacramento Bee investigative report published Sunday that found numerous patients discharged from Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas to Greyhound buses bound for other states were later arrested at the destination cities for crimes that included murder, assault, theft, vagrancy and sex offenses.

A spokeswoman for Sandoval said Friday that the governor was “appalled” by the findings and would convene a panel to investigate. “Those responsible will be held accountable,” Sandoval said through his spokeswoman, Mary-Sarah Kinner.

On Monday, Sandoval’s administration provided more detail about the panel. The new Behavioral Health and Wellness Council will be “comprised of members of the Legislature, law enforcement officials, national experts, and providers of behavioral health services in Nevada,” Sandoval said in a statement. It will “assist in closing gaps in services and offer policy recommendations to help improve the quality of life for those individuals living with behavioral health conditions.”

The council is to meet at least six times a year and submit reports to Sandoval twice a year, according to an executive order signed by the governor. The panel will be charged with issuing policy recommendations on delivery of care, public safety, substance abuse and other topics at mental health facilities, including Rawson-Neal, Nevada’s largest public psychiatric hospital.

Monday’s announcement marked the latest in a series of steps Sandoval has taken since the controversial busing program came to light. The Bee reported in April that Rawson-Neal had sent about 1,500 patients via Greyhound bus to destinations across the lower 48 states over the last five years, including about 500 to California. Patients typically were dispatched by taxi to a Las Vegas Greyhound station and put on buses, alone and sometimes heavily medicated, for journeys that in many cases spanned multiple states and several days.

Multiple former patients and their families have said the hospital bused patients across state lines without making arrangements for their treatment or housing, and often to cities where they had tenuous ties, or none at all.

Among those bused were Joseph Ceretti, arrested six months later in Des Moines, Iowa, after he stabbed a man to death; and Mark Hesselgrave, a convicted murderer who, three months after he was bused out of Las Vegas, stabbed a man in North Dakota. He remains in jail there awaiting trial on attempted murder charges.

Nevada bused yet another Rawson-Neal patient, a convicted child molester, to San Diego in 2011, even as he faced criminal charges in Las Vegas for failing to register as a sex offender. He also failed to register in San Diego, where he disappeared into the streets and soon became the target of a citywide manhunt.

In late April, after the extent of busing from Rawson-Neal became widely known, Sandoval pressed for changes. An internal investigation resulted in the firing of two staff members at Rawson-Neal, and the hospital revised discharge protocols to require that any patients bused out of state be accompanied by a chaperone. The number of patients bused – which last year hit a pace of well over one a day – has dwindled since that change went into affect.

In recent months, acknowledging that state budget cuts have taken a toll, Nevada elected officials have targeted $30 million in additional funding for mental health services, boosting outpatient programs aimed at treating mentally ill people in the community.

The state is remodeling a closed building on Rawson-Neal’s campus that will serve as a satellite facility to Lake’s Crossing in Reno, the state’s only mental hospital for criminals. In addition, the state has increased the number of beds available for inpatient care; established jail re-entry programs; and introduced home visiting programs for mentally ill patients, their families and the community.

Nevada state Sen. Richard “Tick” Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, who has called for more attention to mental health services, said he welcomed Monday’s announcement. He said mental health care in the state is improving, but more resources are needed.

“You can’t just operate on bare bones forever,” he said.

Members of the new council will include the director of the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services; the administrator of the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health; legislators; mental health services providers; law enforcement officials; and social services providers, according to the governor’s executive order.

The council will be divided into “regional subcommittees” to address mental health issues in different parts of the state, the governor’s office said.

Sandoval, through a spokeswoman, declined an interview request Monday.

Zach Hudson, communications director for the Nevada State Democratic Party, said solving the state’s problems will require more fresh blood than a new advisory council.

“Governor Sandoval can create all the councils and additional layers of bureaucracy he wants, but until he holds someone accountable for a scandal that has jeopardized criminal prosecutions in Nevada and resulted in violent crimes in other states, the governor’s rhetoric is little more than window dressing,” Hudson said in a statement.

To see The Bee’s latest investigative report on Nevada’s patient busing program, go to sacbee.com/nevadapatientbusing/

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