VENTURA COUNTY: Audit is Harsh on Mental Health Agency
Ventura Country could be stripped of $5.4 million in state funding if it does not reverse a "troubling deterioration in services for people suffering from mental illness," the state Department of Mental Health warned yesterday in an audit. The money is contingent on the county's maintaining its status as a "state leader" in mental health services, but the audit found that a "climate of 'fear and intimidation' exists" in the agency. An "exceedingly high" number of patients are placed in Ventura County Medical Center's psychiatric ward and there are serious "misunderstandings" about the role of psychiatrists. The audit found that the strife can be partially attributed to the county's recent failure to merge its mental health and social services departments.
Despite a "System of Care" program -- designed by the county and subsequently adopted statewide -- that carries the $5.4 million in funding and which requires that patients be treated in the "least restrictive environment" possible, the audit found that inpatient hospital days have increased a "whopping" 826% to 2,408 across a three-year period. The reviewers suggested that "patients could be better served in residential treatment facilities on a voluntary basis, a move that would also free up more money for other mental health services." The audit also concluded that the county would have to create a system to "evaluate whether adult programs are working or have resulted in lower costs," as directed by state regulations, and stated that "each team [of mental health providers] should have a full-time psychiatrist."
Told You So
State Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) said "the report underscores her belief that organizational changes in the mental health department earlier this year have damaged the county's once-sterling reputation," and that she "blamed Health Care Agency Director Pierre Durand." Wright said, "He has massacred a program for individuals who need help the most. Ventura County was a star, and it's not anymore." Still, the audit was not completely damning. It "did not find that money was improperly funneled out of the mental health department to pay for other public health programs -- a charge that Wright and other critics have leveled at Durand."
The county must now tell the Department of Mental Health by the first of June "whether it plans to fix the problems mentioned or risk losing funding for the next fiscal year," how those problems will be solved by Nov. 1, "and agree to allow state monitoring of its mental health programs" (Saillant, Los Angeles Times, 6/2).