California’s protection & advocacy system
For legal assistance call 800-776-5746. For all other purposes call 916-504-5800 in Northern CA
or 213-213-8000 in Southern CA. TTY 800-719-5798.
May 7, 2010
|Leslie Napper, a patient named in the lawsuit, depends on the county for mental health services. For more than seven years she has been getting care for her bipolar disorder at Northgate Point, one of the five programs that could be eliminated by the county.|
By Cynthia Hubert
Disability rights groups are asking the federal court to intervene on behalf of thousands of Sacramento County mental patients who may soon be forced out of their community treatment programs because of budget cuts.
The lawsuit seeking class-action status, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, contends the cuts violate various state and federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, and would be devastating to patients.
If the services are eliminated as planned on June 30, thousands of severely, chronically mentally ill people "will inevitably be exposed to increased harm of injury and death," the lawsuit claims.
Plaintiffs named in the suit, filed by Disability Rights California, the Western Center on Law and Poverty, and Cooley LLP, are five indigent residents of Sacramento County whose programs are on the chopping block. Named as defendants are the county, the Board of Supervisors and county officials responsible for administering outpatient mental health services.
A county spokeswoman said officials had yet to see the lawsuit and most likely would decline to comment on a matter in litigation. Administrators previously have said they have no choice but to make wrenching cuts in an effort to cut $17 million from their behavioral health budget.
Under its latest proposal, the department of Behavioral Health Services proposes cutting its ties with five programs that provide outpatient care to people with such conditions as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
The programs have been slashed by more than half during the past year, leaving area hospitals and private clinics struggling to fill gaps in care. If the current budget proposal passes, 5,000 or more patients would have to find care elsewhere.
To make up for the cuts, the behavioral health department has proposed expanding its Adult Psychiatric Aftercare Clinic and opening four new outpatient mental health "wellness centers" staffed by county workers.
Private care providers are sharply criticizing the plan, arguing that the proposed new system would cost more to run and disrupt care to numerous patients. The result, they said, would be more psychotic people going untreated, crowding emergency rooms, wandering the streets and committing crimes.
The lawsuit makes similar arguments, and urges the court to prevent the county from cutting the services.
"We're asking them to keep the status quo," said Stuart Seaborn of Sacramento, lead attorney for Disability Rights California.
"These programs help people maintain independence. We're pleased with the tools that the county has developed, and now they want to take them away."
One of the patients named in the suit is Leslie Napper, 41, who depends on the county for the mental health services she receives through Medi-Cal. Napper has been getting care for her bipolar disorder at Northgate Point, one of the five programs under the gun, for more than seven years.
Napper came to Northgate Point from a locked mental hospital.
"I was in deep crisis," she said.
The program has helped Napper manage her medications and symptoms and avoid relapses. "The continuity and quality of care is unparalleled in Sacramento," she said. "Everything we need is accessible to us on a daily basis."
The proposed cuts have sent a wave of panic through patients who have depended upon the programs for years and have regained stability and independence, Napper said.
"We've gone straight to fear. There have been lots of tears," she said.
Without the programs, "I'm afraid we will decompensate," said Napper, who has suffered from hallucinations and suicidal thoughts in the past. "I could sink deep into my illness. At worst, I could succeed in committing suicide. Many of my peers feel the same."
The county has provided few details about its proposed new clinics, including where they might be located, said Seaborn.
"It's impossible for them to set up a fully functioning outpatient mental health system before July 1," he said. "These patients have no idea where they are going to go."