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Lawmakers look at possible expansion of mental health monitoring pilot project

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A potential bill has been drafted to expand the state's mental health monitoring pilot project, but some lawmakers aren't sure if they're on board with those plans.

Director of the West Virginia Supreme Court's Division of Mental Hygiene and Mental Health Court Services, Linda Artimez, told lawmakers Feb. 11 the state's current involuntary commitment process works like an acute care process.

"It's short-term treatment, then they are discharged once they reach the level of no longer likely to harm themselves or someone else," Artimez said. "You tend to get a cycling effect because of that.

Wendy Elswick, assistant attorney general for the Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities, told lawmakers a temporary probable cause unit, created by the Legislature in 2010, has had success in Kanawha County at Highland Hospital and also in a few other counties, including Boone or Lincoln.

Elswick said the program has been increasingly successful, with last year's Legislature allowing people with addiction issues to be included in the program.

She said in 2010, the program helped 82 people who otherwise would have been committed, and in 2012, 122 people were not committed and instead received services through the program.

"These individuals are receiving the appropriate level of services in the least restrictive environment," Elswick said. "That is what's making this successful."

Counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kevin Baker, told lawmakers the drafted bill would make the program more useful to the courts and to judges. He said some out-of-state experts advocated for fewer civil commitments and more outpatient treatment in West Virginia, but the concern from mental health consumer groups was that forced treatment is usually poorly received.

"Our understanding is that judges have not used the temporary compliance order," Baker said. "This was intended to allow individuals to stay outside of a hospital, and outside commitment while receiving medication or other treatments they need and remain a member of society without having to be committed to a state institution."

Artimez said the goal would be to decrease inpatient commitments, which are more costly than outpatient treatments.

She explained that the proposed bill eases some restrictions under the current treatment compliance order, which is a method to help a person before they're likely to commit a crime of violence or become a danger to themselves or other. She said any adult can request involuntary commitment, and then a judge makes the determination.

"You're catching that hopefully earlier point of their treatment process," she said.

Under the proposed bill, the pilot project would still be a pilot project, and would be set to expire in June 2014, unless the Legislature extends it.