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Prosecutors look to pare down cost of mental-health “gap” proposal

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Feb. 5, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
February 5, 2013 4:00 pm

The House Judiciary Committee put off a scheduled vote today on prosecutors’ proposal addressing violent crimes involving the mentally ill. The legislation’s sponsor says it’s not in trouble; after all, he’s the chairman of the committee.

But Rep. Jamie Pedersen also acknowledged there’s an obstacle to his bill, a bigger one than the objections by civil-liberties advocates who say it would deprive people of due process. And that is the bill’s fiscal note.

Sorry for the legislative jargon: A fiscal note is simply a formal cost estimate. And the note on this measure calls it a nearly $7 million hit to the two-year budget that the Legislature is preparing to write. It indicates the need for at least one new, 30-bed ward for psychiatric patients, likely at Western State Hospital in Lakewood.

Seven million dollars isn’t huge in the scheme of a more than $30 billion budget, but lawmakers are trying to cut, not add, in most areas to beef up spending on schools. Of course, mental health could be an exception, as I wrote this weekend. Many advocates see the need for either more hospital wards or alternative treatment.

But prosecutors are trying to find ways to reduce the cost of this particular measure.

The heart of the legislation involves creating a new, lower standard for detaining certain patients longer — those who avoided felony convictions because of their mental illnesses. Even though they are deemed incompetent to stand trial, they don’t always meet the criteria for involuntary commitment — falling into a perceived “gap” between the two standards.

But that core piece doesn’t seem to be the costliest part of the bill, according to prosecutors, who estimate that part would require about 10 hospital beds.

Much more expensive, apparently, is a provision dealing with people with developmental disabilities, said prosecutors’ executive leader, Tom McBride. He said they have decided to drop that provision from the legislation.

A second, also pricey piece requires certain patients to be evaluated at Western State Hospital after charges are dropped, rather than other sites such as Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. “That’s the unavoidable cost problem,” said Pedersen, who said state hospitals should be used because they have the experts and the facilities that were built for such evaluations.

McBride said he is working with other interests on a compromise that would keep a more flexible version of that requirement.

“I’m thinking we’re getting close to working something out,” he said.

 

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