County preserving funding for key residential mental health care, peer counseling programs

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Under intense pressure by mental health patients and advocates, county leaders during budget negotiations Wednesday agreed to spend more than $6 million to save residential care and peer and family support services from deep budget cuts.

These programs, operated under the behavioral health division of the county Department of Health Services, serve thousands of patients a year across Sonoma County who suffer a range of mental health disorders.

More than half of that money will go toward continuing operations of 16 residential care homes providing specialized care to more than 200 people diagnosed with acute mental health conditions. The county supervisors decided to spare $3.8 million in budget trims the health department director had proposed which could have potentially closed these vital residential care sites.

The supervisors’ retreat on making harsh funding reductions to mental health services came the day after about 70 people turned out to support these essential programs at the only public forum on the county’s $1.78 billion 2019-2020 budget, expected to be approved Friday.

Supervisors are able to keep fully funding the residential care services by transferring it from the county’s health department to the Community Development Commission, which oversees the county housing authority and receives local, state and federal money to manage myriad housing-related programs.

“We cannot let this program fall through the cracks,” Supervisor Susan Gorin said of residential mental health care. Gorin and fellow supervisors James Gore and Shirlee Zane banded together to preserve the critical mental health programs facing severe funding cutbacks, citing the community benefits.

Tom Biere, executive director of Community Support Network, which operates two residential care homes, said the last few months have been stressful for his organization as it awaited the county’s decision regarding funding.

“We only have 30 days to go until our contract is up, so I am grateful that the county found a creative solution to keep these folks housed,” Biere said.

Last year, residential care received $3.9 million in county funding, which Health Services Director Barbie Robinson proposed whittling down to $100,000 a year. Robinson made proposals in April to make deep cuts across her behavioral and public health divisions, in an attempt to close the $11 million budget shortfall that has overwhelmed her department since 2014.

Also, the supervisors are temporarily rescuing peer counseling and family support programs by committing $2.5 million in funding through 2021. That money remains contingent on community counseling program and county leaders collaborating to find alternative sources of cash. Originally, Robinson called for $1.3 million in one-year funding cuts for these behavioral health initiatives.

The supervisors’ willingness to continue paying for the residential mental health care and peer counseling for some of the county’s most vulnerable residents alleviated anxiety of dozens of patients, family members, health providers and supporters who say patients depend daily on the specialized care to survive.

Robert Lloyd, 42, was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his early 20s. For nearly two years, he has been living at the male-only Hope House in Santa Rosa. It’s one of the residential care homes managed by Community Support Network that would have been hard-pressed to keep operating, if the county had enacted the planned budget cuts.

“It would be a shame if they ever closed it, because there are a lot of people dependent now and in the future that need a house like this,” Lloyd said Wednesday. “There are a lot of people that need help on the streets that come to a place like this to get to shower and food. I would be upset if I ever heard they closed it.”

Before Lloyd was accepted into Hope House, his parents Karen and Peter Lloyd watched helplessly for two decades as their son, who had been an elite swimmer in high school and had studied molecular biology, was shuffled between hospitals, jails and temporary living quarters — all while being sedated with prescription drugs.

“We were devastated when he was diagnosed and over time he lost all social skills and became a shell of himself,” Peter Lloyd said. “It has been a long struggle ever since.”

Robert Lloyd first started hearing voices days after he graduated from UC Berkeley over 20 years ago. Initially, he said the voices in his head were nonthreatening, but his mental state quickly deteriorated to daily bouts of extreme paranoia.

After his schizophrenia diagnosis, his parents said years of tumult were filled with frequent 911 calls, middle-of- the-night emergency room visits and various stints in mental health facilities across Northern California.

Since moving into Hope House, Lloyd’s mental health has dramatically improved.

“We have our son back,” Peter Lloyd said. “It’s the small things we notice, like his ability to focus on something for longer than five minutes and the fact we can sometimes hug him.”

The 24-hour care now has given Robert Lloyd an opportunity to start focusing on life outside his mental health disorder. He has his sights on going back to school.

Geoffrey Ross, assistant executive director of the Community Development Commission, said the commission is working with the county health department to use money originally diverted from the general fund to support housing developments, including residential care homes like Hope House.

Ross said he’s engaged in ongoing talks with county leaders to forge a long-term funding commitment for these homes to provide uninterrupted mental health care.

The county should indefinitely pay for residential care for mental health patients, Supervisor Zane said.

“It will be ongoing funding for this program, because it is a really good investment in the long run,” she said.

Meanwhile, county supervisors on Wednesday still were discussing the fate of the health department’s disease control services unit slated to face a $1.3 million annual funding reduction. The proposed budget trim within the health department’s public health division could leave the county ill-equipped to handle a public health disaster such as a spate of measles cases.

Regarding the prospect of the budget ax, Dr. Karen Holbrook, the county’s deputy public health officer who manages disease control services, said last month: “Of course, this worries me because I am nervous about the community since we are looking at risks of having measles cases here that could spread quite rapidly.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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