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Pinellas County to address mental health, substance abuse issues in upcoming budget

Margie Manning

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Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay

The Pinellas County budget for fiscal year 2020 could include extra funding to address behavioral health issues, including mental health and substance abuse.

The preliminary $2.4 billion county budget sets aside money in general fund reserves to evaluate increased treatment options. County administrators want to bring in an outside consultant to develop cost estimates for several of those options. They also want to ask for information on what it would take to increase the number of beds available for people in need of emergency substance abuse services.

“This county is in a crisis when it comes to substance abuse and overdose,” Commissioner Kathleen Peters said at a July 23 meeting of the Pinellas County Board of County Commissioners. “The most responsible thing we can do at some point is intervene and try to save lives. The longer it takes for us to do this, the more people are dying every day.”

Florida ranks at the bottom of the list when it comes to mental health funding, Assistant County Administrator Lourdes Benedict told commissioners. In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the state spent $36 per person, compared to the national average of $125,  she said.

Pinellas County has funded gaps in services to meet the needs of the indigent and homeless population, “ but even with all of that … we still continue to see increases in demand for crisis related services,” Benedict said.

Benedict focused on treatment for people who are believed to be mentally ill and taken into custody under the Baker Act, as well as individuals temporarily detained for substance abuse evaluation and treatment under the Marchman Act.

In Pinellas County, there were more than 10,000 evaluations under the Baker Act last year, with 45 beds countywide available for treatment.

Between March 2017 and November 2018, 1,756 people — or about 92 people a month — were taken into protective custody and jailed under the Marchman Act. That total includes people jailed more than once. They usually are jailed for four to six hours before they are released.

There are no specific Marchman Act treatment beds in Pinellas County, although other large counties, including Hillsborough County, have about 30 beds.

County administrators have proposed setting aside some funding to support Marchman beds as well as post-detention treatment, Benedict said.

“We hope to develop some scope on that to secure the Marchman beds and do a request for information. The goal is to put out a request for information – and we have a pretty robust schedule for this — and to get information, find out who is out there who can do this and partner with us,” she said. “At the same time, the second piece of this is to engage a behavioral health consultant to look at how we get reimbursed, what funding is out there, what different pieces of what we are doing are working, do they have best practices.”

Putting extra funding in the reserve fund in the budget for the upcoming year, for a study, would allow the county to act quickly once it decides the best way to move forward, County Administrator Barry Burton told the commission.

“We’ve set aside money in reserves to address that, so we could act next year, not wait another year and address it in a future budget,” Burton said. “This is a complicated issue and we want to act now, but we need to do a little more analysis and come up with some alternative service delivery models and make sure we have the best solution when we make that final decision.”

Behavioral health is one of more than two dozen priority issues in the proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts. Oct. 1. The tentative budget will be posted to the county website on Sept. 10, with public hearings scheduled for Sept. 12 and Sept. 24.

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