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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Mental health sales tax paying dividends

Spokane County Commission Chairman Mark Richard says he’ll proudly carry a year-old mental health tax into his 2008 re-election campaign.

He and Commissioners Todd Mielke and Bonnie Mager planned to announce at a news conference today that a 1 percent local sales tax for county mental health programs paid big dividends in its first year.

“Out of all the things that I have done here, it is probably the most rewarding,” Richard said.

Programs decimated by deep cuts have been restored and improved, and some new ones have been created.

Mental patients are receiving outpatient treatment to prevent crises that could send them to Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake or the psychiatric ward at Sacred Heart Medical Center. And the county is no longer wasting millions of dollars on penalties for sending too many patients to the state mental hospital.

The county is saving lives as well as money, according to John Murphy, a longtime patient advocate at Eastern State who once was a patient himself. “Anything they can do to keep people in the community and keep them from going into full-blown crisis is worth every dollar of it,” Murphy said.

With new medicines and proper treatment, he said, most mental patients are indistinguishable from anyone else.

The key is to help people “before they get over the edge,” he said. “You don’t get to the real crisis point where you’re so sick it takes months and months to get better.”

Richard agreed that the sales tax increase is one of several boons for mental patients in the past couple of years.

Others include state cancellation of $300,000 worth of Spokane County penalties, the Legislature’s appropriation of $80 million statewide to offset federal cuts in mental health funding, and the city of Spokane’s $3.2 million purchase of the 138-bed Carlyle Care Center in November to save it from bank foreclosure.

Commissioners imposed the mental health sales tax in December 2005, several months after the Legislature authorized it and one month after 58.1 percent of voters added their blessing in an advisory ballot. The tax took effect in March 2006.

It could have been permanent, but commissioners authorized the tax only through March 2009. Richard said he will call for its renewal, although he may ask for another advisory ballot and another sunset period – measures he believes build trust with constituents.

The tax was expected to produce about $6.5 million in its first full year of collection, but delivered about $7.5 million.

County mental health officials expect another $7.5 million in the coming fiscal year. They plan to parlay it into $10.2 million by taking advantage of a state program that matches local contributions for mental health treatment of Medicaid patients.

In previous years, much of the matching money would have gone to penalties instead.

Mental health officials spent about $1 million of their 2005 budget on penalties for sending too many crisis cases to Eastern State Hospital. Now crisis-preventing treatment has eliminated most of the penalties, freeing up more money for treatment.

Christine Barada, director of Community Services, Housing and Community Development, said her agency had been paying $500 a day extra – twice the standard rate – for each Eastern State Hospital bed in excess of 101 that was occupied by a Spokane County resident. The county hadn’t been below the limit for “quite a few years,” she said.

Now, county residents fill only about 90 beds a day at Eastern State Hospital and the 101-bed limit hasn’t been exceeded for more than a few days in eight months, Barada said. A preliminary accounting indicates penalties were only about $4,000 in the first six months of this year.

In addition, Richard said, the county Regional Service Network for mental health programs has repaid a $2.8 million emergency loan and rebuilt its budget reserves while restoring, improving and creating programs.

Among the improvements he cited, a team now screens jail inmates – some 30 percent of whom are estimated to have mental health problems – for treatment instead of prosecution for low-level crimes.

Barada said other sales tax accomplishments include:

“Reopening the crisis triage center in the Community Services Building at 312 W. Eighth, which was closed in November 2005. The center refers clients to agencies for treatment.

“Providing more beds and longer stays at the Hartson House treatment center.

“Increasing the number of treatment beds in detoxification, congregate care centers and other residential facilities.

“Restoration of mental health counseling in schools, and counseling for the elderly.

“Supporting court programs that provide alternatives to incarceration for defendants with mental health and drug problems.

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