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March 12, 2014 at 6:20 AM

Another important mental health reform… gets delayed

Doug Reuter is most likely leaving Olympia Wednesday morning a frustrated man.

Doug and Nancy Reuter (Bettina Hansen / Seattle Times)

Nancy and Doug Reuter (Bettina Hansen / Seattle Times)

He and his wife Nancy moved to Olympia from Texas this winter to lobby the Legislature on a mental-health reform bill they believe would’ve saved their son’s life. The Joel Reuter bill, as it’s become known, passed the House 96-0, due in large part to their amazing advocacy.

It simply would allow family members to seek judicial review if a mentally ill loved one is denied emergency psychiatric hospitalization. Right now, there is no means to contest a denial by the gatekeepers of involuntary commitments. As Doug Reuter points out, supposedly progressive Washington ranks 49th in the nation for community psychiatric beds, and is an outlier on this issue too. Forty-five other states already allow judicial review, which the Reuters used to get their son help in Arizona.

Doug Reuter said, “I believe our son would have been alive today if it were in effect last March 13,” when his parents noticed Joel was not taking his medications and began, unsuccessfully, to get him committed. He was eventually shot by Seattle Police on Capital Hill on July 5. (My colleague Brian Rosenthal did a powerful news story on the case.)

But when the bill, HB 2725, went to the state Senate, its implementation date was kicked back to 2017. A new version passed by the Senate Ways & Means committee called for a study of involuntary commitment laws, apparently to assess the need. It is currently pending a full vote in the Senate, and its prospects are not looking good.

The Senate’s tinkering is befuddling. It acknowledged Doug Reuter’s point: This bill could save lives. But those lives wouldn’t be saved in the next three years.

Joel Reuter (Courtesy the Reuter family)

Joel Reuter (Courtesy the Reuter family)

What’s really going on here is budget triage. The estimated cost of the Joel Reuter act is up to $6 million more this year. Think about that: If judges could overturn denials of involuntary commitments, there would be a lot more people committed. As state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said in legislative testimony, “That is a sign that things are not working.”

This pattern of delaying important mental-health reforms isn’t new. The Legislature in 2010 loosened criteria for involuntary commitment after hearing stories similar to Joel Reuter’s, but then delayed, then delayed it again, to 2015. Last legislative session, under pressure similar to what Doug Reuter applied this year, the date was sped up by a year.

But the cost of mental-health legislation never accounts for the public money wasted by gross inefficiency. In Joel Reuter’s case, his father estimates that King County and Seattle spent at least $500,000 in responding to the July 5 shooting, including a $250,000 shooting inquest. In contrast, Joel’s private insurance would have paid for his hospitalization had something like the Joel Reuter act been in effect months before. The Washington state National Association of Mental Illness chapter, by the way, has lobbied for years for a law requiring such an accounting when the Legislature considers mental-health legislation.

Doug Reuter is planning to head to Minnesota in the morning, where he and his wife will press this same issue with lawmakers. He served two terms in the Minnesota House, and hopes he’ll have better luck there getting a bill passed that doesn’t delay a clear and acknowledged fix until 2017.

“It’s very frustrating, and the result is needless death,” he said. “How many other people are going to die over the next three years because family members who know their loved ones are ill and need help are locked out?”

Comments | Topics: legislature, mental health


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