“The system is broken”

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A recent Los Angeles Times article examines the overwhelming influx of patients with mental disabilities into emergency rooms across California, as the state continues to slash mental health services.

This is an emregency room sign outside a hospital with an arrow pointed toward the ER

Reduction in crisis services

“There has been a wholesale reduction across the state for crisis services for individuals with mental illness,” said Sheree Kruckenberg, vice president of behavioral health at the California Hospital Assn. “The default in many communities is the only 24/7 provider, an emergency room.”

With the sharp decrease in psychiatric beds and diminishing mental health staff, individuals often have to wait for hours, or days, in emergency rooms while they wait for services to transport them to hospitals with psychiatric services. Only a small portion of the state’s hospitals contain psychiatric services in their facilities.

Since 1996, the number of acute-in-patient hospital beds statewide has dropped from 8,500 to 6,500. At the same time, California has chopped its mental health services budget by nearly 16 percent, resulting in more than 200,000 fewer people receiving mental health services.

Recent changes in Los Angeles County could potentially make the problem even more pressing. As of August 1, county psychiatric evaluation team responders only respond to calls in emergency rooms when they are not needed out in the field, such as in schools or at homes. Though states are not required by law to ensure that psychiatric teams respond to emergency room calls, they have long served as a safeguard for people with mental disabilities.

“We are inundated with these patients,” said Marc Futernick, California Hospital’s director of emergency services. “The design of the system is that everyone gets taken care of in a timely fashion. The system is broken.”