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LA County Will Add 500 Badly Needed Mental Health Treatment Beds

A new study on mental health care suggests a dearth of providers willing to accept insurance. (Rebecca Plevin/ KPCC)
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The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to add 500 mental health treatment beds over the next two years, as part of a larger effort to increase services for Angelenos who need psychiatric help.

The supervisors approved recommendations in a report from the County Department of Mental Health, which said there's a serious shortage of psychiatric treatment beds. Emergency rooms are overloaded and about one-quarter of the county's adult homeless people have a serious mental illness, according to the report.

What's more, the California Hospital Association said in a 2018 report that the state should have 50 acute psychiatric inpatient beds for every 100,000 people. L.A. County has less than half that number.

County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, the motion's author, believes more psychiatric treatment beds will mean fewer people cycling through the criminal justice system.

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"I firmly am confident that expanding the number of beds is going to play a role in diversion, which will keep individuals out of our jails," Barger said.

Earlier this year, supervisors approved a plan to demolish the Men's Central Jail and replace it with a mental health facility.

Brittney Weissman, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Los Angeles County Council, supports the measure approved Tuesday. But she said it doesn't go far enough.

"Five hundred beds doesn't go that far in a county with over 10 million people, if we're thinking that 20% of the population is living with some kind of mental health challenge," she said.

Weissman said she's glad the county's plan also calls for further assessment of what's needed to shore up the mental health system. That includes looking at alternatives to hospitalization, and how to increase staffing and facility space.

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"This effort isn't just about increasing the number of beds," said Dr. Jonathan Sherin, the director of the county's Department of Mental Health. "It's also increasing the quality of care and creating a network between all of our hospitals, whether they're county hospitals or private hospitals."

Among the problems identified in the Department of Mental Health's report was the lack of beds for patients who need to be in a locked facility with round-the-clock nursing staff. There are about 1,000 of these so-called subacute beds, and the report suggests that number needs to be tripled.