Nevada Patient Busing

Nevada legislative panel OKs $2.1 million for mental health system

CARSON CITY, Nev. – A Nevada state legislative committee on Tuesday unanimously approved $2.1 million in emergency spending to shore up the state's mental health system.

The funding will be used largely to add staffing and beds at Las Vegas' Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital and surrounding facilities. The hospital faces multiple investigations following reports in The Sacramento Bee earlier this year that about 1,500 patients had been discharged and bused to locations across the country.

One of those patients arrived in Sacramento with no family or plan for care waiting.

Just months ago, the Nevada Legislature approved $4 million in contingency funds to be used for mental health purposes, but few expected those funds to be needed so soon.

The Legislature is not in session, so approval fell to the state's Interim Finance Committee.

"When the recession hit, we started cutting," said committee chair Debbie Smith, D-Washoe County. "We just have to acknowledge the fact that we need more money."

Since The Bee's initial reports, the federal government has launched an ongoing investigation that threatens a portion of Rawson-Neal's funding.

The cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco are also investigating whether Nevada "dumped" patients in their cities.

And last month, the hospital lost its accreditation from the Joint Commission, an independent agency. The commission cited the hospital for multiple lapses, including several related to the safety and proper discharge of patients.

In addition to those investigations, Las Vegas has seen a recent spike in the number of mentally ill patients languishing in hospital emergency rooms, waiting for a spot in Rawson-Neal.

That spike is due to longer patient stays at Rawson-Neal and general concern about patient safety by hospitals.

"The governor believes it would be unthinkable to wait even a day longer" to approve new funding, Gerald Gardner, the chief of staff for Gov. Brian Sandoval, told the committee.

State funding for mental health and developmental services fell by roughly $80 million over the last several years. Some of that funding was restored by legislators this session, but not enough, state leaders said, to deal with several pressing issues.

The $2.1 million will pay for hiring 11 new staff members at Rawson-Neal, including mental health technicians, caseworkers and nurses. Another 12 contractors will be hired, including occupational therapists, psychologists and social workers.

The money also will be used to improve a building at the Rawson-Neal campus to allow for up to 22 more patient beds. Those beds would be staffed largely by filling vacant positions. The improvements to the building will be completed within 120 days, state officials said.

Many of the improvements are important, said Mike Willden, director of the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, to ensure that Rawson-Neal regains accreditation from the Joint Commission. Willden said the state's goal is to receive a new inspection from Joint Commission officials in December after improvements are finished.

"It's been a frustrating process," Willden said.

Some legislators expressed their own frustration, saying that the $2.1 million in new funding may not be enough to adequately address systemic problems.

"It seems like the problem is not getting better," said Nevada Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick, D-Clark County. "We tend to fix the problem and then it goes away, then we cut more dollars and it comes back. It comes back with a vengeance."

Underscoring the urgency of the state's request was a plan to shift millions in capital improvement funding away from safety, security and other improvements from an aging northern Nevada psychiatric facility to make renovations and raise capacity at Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services, where Rawson-Neal is located.

The shift was necessary, state officials said, to ensure that alleged criminals waiting for psychiatric evaluations are safely treated.

That plan, which would have foregone fixes to items such as fire alarms, was rejected by the committee, though lawmakers told state health officials they could come back at the end of the month with alternative sources of funding for the improvements.

Call The Bee's Phillip Reese, (916) 321-1137. Follow him on Twitter @PhillipHReese.