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Sacramento Business Journal

May 7, 2010

Disability advocates sue Sacramento County to block cuts to outpatient mental health services

By Kathy Robertson, Staff writer

Disability advocates filed a class action Thursday to stop Sacramento County’s plan to unwind existing outpatient mental health services for thousands of poor patients and implement a new plan by July 1.

Disability Rights California, the Western Center on Law and Poverty and Cooley LLP jointly announced the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento on behalf of five indigent county residents who currently receive services and others like them.

The lawsuit alleges the cuts violate federal and state laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, The Rehabilitation Act, the Medicaid Act and federal and state constitutions.

It seeks a court order to prevent the county from terminating medically necessary mental health services without demonstrating that replacement services are available, a transition plan is in place — and patients get adequate notice of the changes and the right to appeal them.

The county, its Board of Supervisors and county officials responsible for administering outpatient mental health services are named as defendants.

County spokeswoman Laura McCasland said the county does not comment on active litigation and declined comment.

County coffers are dry. A $17.5 million hole in the behavioral health services budget is forcing the revamp, which county officials say will serve everybody in the current program — albeit in a different way.

The county currently provides outpatient mental health services to about 5,000 adult residents through six community-based treatment programs, including four Regional Support Teams. The program combines psychotherapy, counseling, medication and support services.

Due to the short timeline — the scope of the budget hole was identified last month and the new plan must be in place before the new fiscal year starts July 1 — patients and their advocates fear what’s coming and lack of detailed information about it.

They are concerned about what services will be provided, by whom, where they will be located, how patients’ records will be transferred and how patients will be assured of continuity of treatment. The population is fragile and easily confused by change.

“These service cuts are not only unlawful, they also threaten catastrophic harm to the most vulnerable members of our society,” Stuart Seaborn, managing attorney of Disability Rights California’s Sacramento regional office, said in a news release. “It will be impossible for the county to assume responsibility for treating 5,000 individuals in less than two months.”

County mental health director Mary Ann Bennett presented some information at a Mental Health Steering Committee meeting April 15. The new outpatient program includes four new wellness centers with transitional and ongoing services provided by county staff and others.

Leslie Napper, a mental health consumer and lead plaintiff in the class action, spoke at the public hearing.

“Keep the RSTs open, at least one,” she said. “I don’t want to fall between the cracks. Please do not desert us.”

Bennett will provide more details at another meeting scheduled for Thursday night 7. It will be held at 7001A East Parkway in Sacramento.