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Virginia to decide on spending to improve mental health care

Job vacancies in Virginia mental health hospitals were well over 20%


RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia’s “dangerously” full mental hospitals are overwhelmed amid staffing shortages, a situation that has long plagued the hospitals and only worsened during the pandemic, according to state officials.

But The Washington Post reports lawmakers and policy experts hope pandemic relief funds can help bring about systematic changes that free inpatient beds and develop community services to keep people out of hospitals in the first place.

When the General Assembly reconvenes in August, it will decide how to spend about $4 billion Virginia is getting from the American Rescue Plan. A joint subcommittee studying mental health services is preparing recommendations for how to use the funds in time for the session.

“We have the opportunity with these funds to really do something transformational. That is what we are asking for,” Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services Commissioner Alison Land said in a presentation to the subcommittee this month.

The state’s nine inpatient psychiatric hospitals, which have a total of 2,124 beds, are operating at an average 98% capacity, she said. And efforts to contain the coronavirus have had unintended consequences.

But instead of more beds, the state must address mental health needs before they require hospitalization, according to Anna Mendez, board president of the nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health of Virginia and executive director of the Charlottesville affiliate, Partner for Mental Health. Most states spend 75% of public mental health dollars on community services and the rest on inpatient hospitals, but Virginia does the opposite, she said.

“When you fund state hospital beds at the expense of building out a community-based system, you create a perverse loop where you just need more and more hospital beds. That is the situation we find ourselves in,” she said.

Even with more beds, there may not be enough staffers. The department had more than 1,000 job vacancies in March 2020 and that number grew to about 1,300 this month, “leaving facilities overwhelmed,” Land said.

Across the state, job vacancies in mental health hospitals were well over 20% - and in some cases, up to 50%, she said.

Advocates say the state needs more intervention centers, where people in crisis can get immediate mental health treatment without an emergency room visit. The state has contracts with private mental health facilities to divert patients from public hospitals and plans to add more, she said. The state has also launched a multi-year effort to add more community services to every region.

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