Louisiana officials must take lead in mental healthcare, federal officials say

U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA) speaks during the Ceremonial Investiture for Brandon J. Fremin, new U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana, at Russell B. Long Federal Building & Courthouse, Friday, August 3, 2018.

U.S. Senator Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA) speaks during the Ceremonial Investiture for Brandon J. Fremin, new U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana, at Russell B. Long Federal Building & Courthouse, Friday, August 3, 2018.

Providing mental health services is vitally important, but it is up to local leaders to figure out plans for their own communities, federal officials said Tuesday.

National, state and local politicians, law enforcement, health care experts and social services professionals attending a summit Tuesday hosted by U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, at the Pennington Research Center in Baton Rouge all agreed on the need to provide mental health care that keeps patients out of emergency rooms and jail, but the speakers said it must be a bottom-up effort.

Cynthia Kemp recalled working toward better service in Arlington, Virginia, about a decade ago.

Police, corrections officers and judges were complaining that calls for mentally ill people were wasting law enforcement's time, clogging jails and causing the same people to cycle through the justice system over and over without getting adequate help, said Kemp, now deputy director at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's Office of the Medical Officer.

It took 10 years, but eventually Arlington was able to raise about $800,000 for a jail diversion program and crisis intervention team.

In the meantime, locals worked to connect inmates to social services as soon as they were released from jail and arranged for judges to visit offenders in hospitals so as not to disrupt their psychiatric care, Kemp said.

"It wasn't perfect, and it wasn't easy. We faced a lot of challenges," she told the audience. "You can do it. You have to do it at the local level."

The summit came as Baton Rouge voters weigh whether to levy a 1.5-mill property tax to build their own crisis facility, the Bridge Center.

Asked in an interview about the Bridge Center, Cassidy said that if communities don't pay for treatment, they pay for higher costs associated with incarceration and officers' lost time. Providing mental health service turns residents who consume tax dollars into those who generate tax dollars, he continued. Furthermore, communities need to prove they've got some skin in the game and leverage local dollars to collect federal grant assistance.

Speakers encouraged locals to seek grants, though the numbers they cited weren't always heartening. The Department of Justice attended the summit and distributed literature trumpeting that their mental health program has disbursed $98 million dollars, though that's the total amount they've provided since 2006 and it was split among 435 jurisdictions.

Nevertheless, there is money out there. St. Tammany operates its own facility, Safe Haven, which provides local mental health services. The parish contributes about $313,000 per year through a public health tax and recently found out it has been awarded $5.2 million in federal grants, parish president Pat Brister said in an interview.

Cassidy also gave an update on the 21st Century Cures Act, a law he co-sponsored which passed two years ago with broad bipartisan support. The law touches several health care topics, including multiple mental health reforms. However, in April, Cassidy and his colleagues issued an open letter to the federal departments of health and human services, labor and the treasury indicating the executive branch was dragging its feet implementing the law.

Health and Human Services finally wrote back to Cassidy earlier this month addressing some of his concerns, but the senator said the issue is still "a work in progress" that will require "ongoing oversight." As an example, he said that to address mental health and housing requires participation from disparate agencies such as those that oversee prisons and veterans affairs, and so far leaders haven't been able to bring everyone together.

Phillip LaFargue