I-Team: Mentally Ill Filling Hospital ERs - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Mentally Ill Filling Hospital ERs

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LAS VEGAS -- Last month, an average of 60 mentally ill patients laid waiting in hospital emergency rooms across the Las Vegas valley, according to the state of Nevada.

They weren't at the hospital for medical care, instead they were there for treatment at the state psychiatric hospital.

The overflow at the valley's emergency rooms is not a new problem and there isn't a solution, yet state officials said they believe this is the year the situation will change.

The I-Team has been covering the issue since 2004. Then the number of mentally ill patients in the ER topped more than 100, prompting county officials to declare a state of emergency. Eight years later, that number reached 90 on a single day.

For some it's an improvement, but others consider it a failure.

In 2004, record numbers of mentally ill patients were filling hospital beds meant for the medically ill.

Dr. Dale Carrison of University Medical Center, who spoke with the I-Team on the crisis in 2004 and 2008, said nothing has changed.

"Our waiting rooms are filled," he said.

As state mental health administrators have come and gone, Carrison has remained a constant advocate for a seemingly unsolvable problem.

"We're holding 72 today," he said of mentally ill patients sitting in hospital emergency rooms.

State law requires those seeking psychiatric care to first undergo a medical exam, and although the process typically takes a matter of hours, patients often languish in the ER for days.

"If there's 72 in the valley, that's 72 beds that are taken up," Carrison said. "Multiply that by, let's say, we do a bad job and only turn it over every six hours. Multiply the 72 times 6, that's some 400 patients that won't be seen today."

Numbers like these in 2004 prompted Clark County officials to declare a public health crisis.

Funding for short-term solutions followed with long-term relief expected from a new state psychiatric facility.

But the economic downturn prompted devastating budget cuts, about $80 million to mental health services in the last five years alone.

Dr. Tracey Green is the state health officer and Richard Whitley is the acting administrator for mental health services.

"We've had a reduction in dollars, but we have had some efficiencies in the system," Green said.

Together, they're charged with improving the mental health system -- under a new umbrella -- the proposed state Division of Public and Behavioral Health.

LINK: Nevada's Mental Health Plan

"I think that our future in mental health services is to get upstream in front of the emergency room to identify where could we intervene earlier and prevent the emergency room," Whitley said.

Among their proposals is an old idea with a new a commitment: a 24-hour urgent care center at the state mental hospital.

There, those in need of psychiatric treatment would get a medical exam on-site instead of in an emergency room.

"I don't think we're going to wake up one morning and there's not going to be anybody in the ER," Green said. "I don't have some delusion to the fact that it's all going to be perfect. But I think there are some system fixes and I think we've looked at some potential areas where we can do better."

The urgent care center -- not counting existing resources -- would cost taxpayers just shy of $1 million over the next two years.

And for the first time, it's in the governor's budget.

"It's a start," Carrison said.

Carrison said he believes the urgent care center is an important first step to better serve the medically and mentally ill.

But after years of inaction, he said he expects the status quo.

"Nothing would make me happier then … (if) I could tell you, ‘Boy we've made great progress,'" he said. "Am I optimistic? No."

Green and Whitley said they are committed to doing things better and differently.

The new Division of Public and Behavioral Health will use existing health data to help develop systems of care.

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