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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Decision’s impact uncertain

A court decision this month may save Spokane County’s public mental-health system nearly $1 million a year.

A Thurston Superior Court judge ruled that the state’s practice of fining counties for sending too many patients to state psychiatric hospitals was “invalid and unenforceable.”

Judge Paula Casey ruled that Pierce County, which sued the state, was also entitled to a refund of liquidated damages – a penalty assessed against regional public mental-health systems for exceeding the number of patients allowed at the hospitals. A state formula established how many patients each region could send to the hospital.

Spokane County officials are reviewing the lawsuit to determine whether they might recoup any of the $2.5 million in fines the county has paid to the state’s Department of Social and Health Services since 2003.

“I think we all agree the first place to start is a discussion with DSHS representatives,” said county attorney Jim Emacio. “To the extent that it is legally possible to recoup money that is already paid, I’m sure the commissioners would be interested in pursuing that as well.”

The court decision would benefit the county mental health system, which underwent drastic cuts this fall and faces more in January, according to county officials. However, an end to the state fines, while substantial, would not cure the larger budget woes facing the county, said Christine Barada, the county’s community services department.

“We do want to be very conservative right now,” Barada said.

Spokane’s public mental health system budgeted $75,000 a month this year to pay the fines, even as county officials were forced to cut programs that served teenagers and the elderly, among others.

Spokane County commissioners have asked the public for an advisory vote on a 0.1 percent sales tax increase at next month’s election – a proposal that has won the support of law enforcement, United Way and mental-health providers. The three-year tax will generate about $6.5 million annually to bridge the budget shortfall.

Sheriff Mark Sterk, who announced his support last week, said people with mental illness are draining his staff’s resources – both in the county jail and on the streets.

“My corrections officers and my deputies are not mental health professionals,” Sterk said. “We do not know how to treat these people, and we need help.”

In the midst of the budget crisis and faced with lower Medicaid rates and tighter federal spending guidelines, county officials argue that the state fines sap money that could be used on community mental health programs. A spokesman for the state’s Mental Health Division said top officials would not comment on the court decision to the state attorney general’s office.

Carrie Bashaw, an assistant attorney general with the state, said Washington code, as well as the state’s contract with the county, allowed the fines to be assessed.

“The case is not over,” Bashaw said. “There is still a lot yet to be done.”

Pierce and Spokane, which did not join the lawsuit, have long argued that because of their proximity to the state’s psychiatric hospitals, they care for a disproportionate number of mental-health patients.

“We utilize the hospital more because when people come out of the hospital they stay here,” said Fran Lewis, director of Pierce County’s community services department.

For Spokane’s public mental health system, those fines have on occasion topped $150,000 a month. Spokane accounted for more than 40 percent of all the fines collected by the state, according to figures from the Mental Health Division.

“We are planning on definitely trying to get back whatever we can,” Barada said. “Those monies could have been better used in our system of care.”

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