Court Agrees to New Mental Health Plan for Sacramento County

by David Gorn

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A federal district judge yesterday approved the final settlement of a lawsuit that challenged a plan by Sacramento County to restructure and downsize its mental health system. Yesterday's settlement means mental health services will remain at their current levels in the county -- and, in fact, may even improve, given a number of proposals the county still hopes to adopt.

The county hopes to save money by consolidating two county-operated clinics into one, according to Mary Ann Bennett, director of the county's Division of Mental Health.

"One of them is in a leased facility," Bennett said. "So we want to get out of the leased facility, and we will get some savings there."

For the most part, Bennett said, this settlement benefits everyone.

"We were involved in the discussion, and we are in complete agreement with it," Bennett said. "It's always better to have a consensus agreement. There's nothing in [the agreement] that we haven't wanted to do, or wouldn't want to do."

In May, 2010, Sacramento County officials proposed a new design for the county's mental health system that included cutting four outpatient clinics. A preliminary injunction halted those cuts in July 2010. Both sides have been working on settling the case since then.

"The parties have been working on this for a long time," according to Robert Newman of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which brought the suit along with Disability Rights California. "I think it’s a good settlement. It's certainly pulling back from what they intended to do."

The county will need to develop a comprehensive mental health plan by December of this year, according to the agreement.

Money is tight in Sacramento County, and that was the initial reason to cut the mental health clinics, Bennett said. But the county Board of Supervisors recently came up with the funding, and that has made the difference, she said.

"As long as we're providing Medi-Cal services, there are certain federal mandates that have to be met," Bennett said. "Now we will be looking at our system and making it better, so it should be to the betterment of the clients that we serve."

Part of the agreement includes recommendations for improvement from a county-hired expert, and the county has indicated it may adopt some of those proposals, as well.

If that does happen, Sean Raskis of DRC said the mental health community in the county might actually be better off than when the county first proposed cuts.

"If the county does act on those recommendations, you could say that care has actually improved," Raskis said. "Of course, that's speculation now -- we'll see in a year or so, where the county is headed."


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