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Originally published Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 4:02 PM

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Editorial: Legislature heeds call for mental-health reform

A bipartisan package of mental-health reforms cleared the Washington state House and Senate, but funding more psychiatric beds remains a challenge.

Seattle Times Editorial

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BY bipartisan agreement, the state Legislature appears to have heeded a call to make mental-health care a more functional, humane system.

Similar packages of mental-health legislation passed the House and Senate last week by unanimous or near-unanimous margins. The bills respond to immediate crises in inpatient psychiatric care and set a course for a much-needed comprehensive review.

That is no easy feat. Mental-health legislation is complex and expensive. But lawmakers should be commended for responding to a well-made case — from advocates, health-care practitioners, police and counties — that previous budget cuts in mental-health care were too deep.

The strongest outcry was on behalf of patients with acute mental distress who are inappropriately boarded in hospital emergency rooms because Washington ranks last in the nation in community psychiatric beds. Senate Bill 5732, and House Bill 1522 would ease the crisis by funding more psychiatric beds.

Other proposals, including Senate Bill 5176 and House Bill 1114, would help solve a backlog in competency evaluations for criminal defendants. Delays cause mentally ill defendants to be held for weeks, even months, in county jails, sometimes in squalid isolation cells, as recently documented by Disability Rights Washington.

The House and Senate also rightly agreed it was time to take a fresh, comprehensive look at the state’s 24-year-old outpatient system for mental-health care. The federal Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion offers new funding and new opportunities for efficiencies.

Despite the worthiness of these ideas, funding is a challenge. Rep. Tami Green, D-Lakewood, a former psychiatric nurse at Western State Hospital, estimates the mental-health package costs $50 million or more. The Department of Social and Health Services has worked to reduce the potential cost, but it may still be too large to be feasible.

The state budget deficit this biennium stands at about $1.3 billion, and that does not count the Legislature’s obligation to give more money to K-12 education and to arrest steep tuition increases in higher education.

But House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Senate budget chair Andy Hill, R-Redmond, both committed to easing access to inpatient psychiatric beds. Hill’s Democratic counterpart, Sen. Jim Hargrove of Hoquiam, agrees.

Godspeed, so long as it can be done without robbing education funding.

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