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Sacramento Bee

August 23, 2010

Editorial: Court tells county: These cuts are crazy

A federal judge's decision should be the final word on Sacramento County's ill-conceived scheme to scrimp on mental health services.

The plan was morally bankrupt to begin with; now it should be clear that it's legally flawed as well. County officials ought not waste any more time or money trying to salvage it.

As of Aug. 1, the county wanted to start shifting as many as 4,000 patients from successful treatment programs run by nonprofits to county-run clinics whose viability was very much in question.

Wednesday, however, U.S. District Judge John A. Mendez blocked the plan, ruling in a lawsuit brought by advocacy groups that it would cause "catastrophic harm" and violate the Americans with Disabilities Act. In an unusual move that should persuade county officials to relent, the U.S. Justice Department urged Mendez to issue the preliminary injunction.

The current set-up has enabled residents coping with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses to get the care they need to live and work in the community.

The proposed changes, the advocacy groups, the judge and federal lawyers agreed, would be so disruptive to patient care that many would likely end up in jails and institutions. That would end up costing the county more than the current program.

County Counsel Robert Ryan says that officials will come up with more specifics on how patients would receive adequate services under the proposed system. But it's hard to imagine they can concoct anything that would pass legal muster and still save enough money to be worth the damage to patients and their families.

Wednesday's decision was only the latest court defeat for the county since supervisors, dealing with a budget deficit topping $180 million, approved cuts last month, including $14 million in the Department of Behavioral Health Services. Another federal judge blocked cuts in medical services to the poor, and the county is also being sued over cuts in the Probation Department.

Now, the county has to find millions in savings elsewhere to balance its budget. That will not be easy, but cutting mental health services to such a degree is not the way to do it.