Kicking off three days of budget hearings on the giant Department of Health & Welfare, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee this morning heard from H&W Director Dick Armstrong, who had good news and bad news. Among the good: Application processing times in both food stamps and Medicaid have dropped significantly while quality measures have improved; an emphasis on getting foster children into permanent homes is stabilizing Idaho’s fast-growing foster child population; and the department’s employee morale, job satisfaction and communications all have improved.
Among the bad: The situation for housing dangerous mentally ill patients is now “desperate,” Armstrong told JFAC. “Idaho statute is quite clear about the obligations … for mentally ill citizens who have committed a crime but are not competent to stand trial. … We present in this budget both short- and long-term solutions in a partnership with the Department of Correction.” The centerpiece is a new 304-bed, $70 million secure mental facility, to be shared by H&W and corrections. But, Armstrong said, “We are realistically looking at four to six years out before it will become operational. As you are all aware, we have people right now in our three hospitals who would be better served in a more secure environment.”
So in the short term, Armstrong wants to remodel a 20-bed unit at the Idaho State School & Hospital in Nampa into an interim secure mental facility. “This will help meet the immediate need we have today,” he said. “By modifying the 20-bed unit at ISSH we could use better security than we have at our other hospitals and reduce the liability to the state of Idaho.”
Once the new secure mental facility opens, the 20-bed interim unit could become a mental treatment facility to serve Treasure Valley area patients, Armstrong said, who now are sent far off to State Hospital North or State Hospital South. “Nothing in this interim solution is throwaway,” he said.