VA Lawmakers Eager For Compromise on Mental Health - NBC29 WVIR Charlottesville, VA News, Sports and Weather

VA Lawmakers Eager For Compromise on Mental Health

Posted: Updated: Feb 21, 2014 05:36 PM

It's an issue hitting close to home for Virginia lawmakers, and now changes to the state's mental health system are almost a reality.

The final debate centers around a difficult question: how long should someone in mental crisis be held against their will?

It's a difficult question because it's a sensitive and personal topic for State Senator Creigh Deeds. Wednesday marked three months since his world was turned upside down by horrific tragedy.

On the morning of November 19, 2013 Deeds' son Gus attacked his father and took his own life in the midst of a mental health crisis. Gus had been released from an emergency custody order (ECO) just hours before because a treatment facility with available space could not be found in time.

"Nobody has had experience with this issue like I have," Deeds said during a passionate speech on the Senate floor earlier this month.

In the months since the tragedy Deeds has led many mental health reform efforts, spurred by a somber feeling of obligation to his son. His signature bill, Senate Bill 260, would extend the time limit for an ECO from six to 24 hours. The bill also ensures someone in mental crisis would be admitted to a state treatment facility after eight hours if no other alternative is found.

Some are concerned about an extended ECO period. The Virginia Sheriffs' Association says a 24-hour limit would place a greater time and financial burden on law enforcement, and the ACLU of Virginia is concerned a longer period could become a constitutional issue.

"We have never said that any particular time period is in and of itself determinative of constitutionality. We have said repeatedly that the issue is one of “time and place.” 24 hours in the back of a sheriff’s office likely would be problematic. 24 hours in a therapeutic environment might not be,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director ACLU of Virginia. 

Just last month, Virginia's Mental Health Task Force recommended a 12-hour ECO limit. But lawmakers in the House of Delegates think eight hours is enough to solve the problem.

"Maybe we don't need as much time," Charlottesville Democrat David Toscano said.

The House wants to set the ECO limit at eight hours, still relying on state hospitals for last resort bed space.

"The question is whether we're going to do eight hours or 24 hours?" Toscano said. "We've got to figure out where the sweet spot is. We will do that."

It's a debate destined for conference committee, where Deeds and other lawmakers from the House and Senate will determine the bill's final language.

"Everybody understands that there's a compromise to be had, we're looking forward to getting one and accomplishing this important goal this session," said Republican Delegate Ben Cline.

Included in the bill is a measure to speed up the rollout of an electronic bed registry, which would help keep track of available bed space in real time. The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services says the registry is already expected to go live next month.

Another mental health bill sponsored by Deeds could also head to the governor's desk as early as next week. Senate Bill 261 reported unanimously out of a House committee Friday. It requires the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) to review training and qualifications required for certain mental health evaluators across the state.

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