King County and Seattle Form Coalition to Strengthen Mental Health Facilities and Workforce

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King County has lost nearly a third of its residential mental health beds since 2018, and residents are waiting an average of 44 days for such treatment, county and city officials said Thursday.

The data indicates the severely underfunded state of the county’s behavioral health system. It was announced as part of the formation of a new coalition of King County and Seattle government leaders, state officials and healthcare workers who plan to rebuild and add more resources. to the region’s exhausted mental health workforce.

A sweeping proposal to address shortcomings in the crisis response system, lack of beds in residential treatment centers and labor shortages is set to head to the Metropolitan King County Council next month alongside the the Dow Constantine executive’s 2023-2024 biennial budget, officials said at a Thursday morning news conference in downtown Seattle.

Officials did not commit to a specific budget, nor did they give details on how much these big-ticket items would cost or how they would be paid for. But officials have suggested that an initial investment in mental health and addiction treatment systems could lead to long-term savings in other corners of city and county budgets, such as prisons.

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The care system for people with mental health or addictions issues is strained from top to bottom. The county does not have a walk-in urgent care center for people in mental health crisis, young people and adults wait hours or days in emergency departments before getting a bed. hospitalization, and several community behavioral health clinics have reduced care or closed altogether.

“We are all here to work together,” Constantine said, “to form a strong political proposal to address this crisis urgently and at the scale needed to achieve the levels of care needed today and to serve our community tomorrow. ”

Constantine was joined by Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell; Girmay Zahilay, member of King County Council; King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall; State Representative Nicole Macri, D-Seattle; Kelli Nomura, director of the King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division; and members of SEIU Healthcare Union 1199NW.

The creation of the coalition recognizes the urgency of tackling an already disjointed system that has worsened during the pandemic. The number of people needing mental health and addictions help soared just as services began to tighten.

This also follows the nationwide launch of the new 988 crisis helpline, which replaces other suicide and mental health helplines and is the first step in a long process of system transformation. national crisis response.

Officials have called for 24/7 walk-in crisis stabilization units, incentives such as higher salaries to attract more people into behavioral health staff, and discontinuation of services emergency and prisons as frontline mental health providers.

Macri said lawmakers and other officials may need to consider regulatory or statutory changes to make some of these proposals possible. For example, she said, the state has yet to create a specific facility licensing pathway for mental health crisis care centers. And she said the state’s Medicaid plan, which primarily targets people with disabilities, low incomes or pregnancy, doesn’t take full advantage of the ability to raise federal funds to pay for mental health care.

The county’s ability to increase the number of mental health beds is also limited by a federal rule that bars large inpatient psychiatric facilities — those with more than 16 beds — from receiving federal Medicaid dollars. The state has a temporary waiver to this rule, but the waiver expires at the end of 2022.

Building the mental health workforce also poses challenges. Naomi Morris, a nurse from SEIU Healthcare 1199NW who spoke as part of the coalition, is the only nurse on a team of behavioral health crisis care professionals expected to have three. Colleagues are leaving the profession, Morris said, because they experience daily trauma and stress. The salary is so low that some cannot support their own basic financial needs.

“I’ve been doing this job for years, and to be true, I’m exhausted,” Morris said. “But I also have a passion for this work.”

People deserve a mental health system that meets them where they are, Morris said.

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