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Deeds Tragedy Raises Questions About Mental Health Services

In this photo in Richmond, Va. on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009, Gus Deeds, left, attends an election results event with his father, Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Virginia State Sen. Creigh Deeds, after his loss in the Virginia governor's race against Republican Bob McDonnell.
(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
In this photo in Richmond, Va. on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009, Gus Deeds, left, attends an election results event with his father, Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Virginia State Sen. Creigh Deeds, after his loss in the Virginia governor's race against Republican Bob McDonnell.

While it now appears that there were some hospitals with psychiatric beds available the night before Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds' son allegedly attacked his father with a knife and then took his own life, mental health professionals say it's a little more complicated than that.

When people like Gus Deeds need help, they need it now. Virginia law sets a four-hour time limit for emergency custody orders. That deadline can be extended for two hours, but for the emergency services worker assigned to the case, time is of the essence.

That means the Bath County mental health professional charged with assessing the younger Deeds probably called the closest hospitals in Roanoke, followed by ones in Salem and Charlottesville — all while time was running out.

"It's a difficult process, very stressful," says Gabriel Duer, a senior therapist with emergency services in Alexandria. "Sometimes you have to go farther in order to find a bed. You often have deal with several hospitals refusing admissions for different reasons."

Sometimes a hospital might have a psychiatric bed available for one kind of disorder but not another. Other times a hospital might deny service because a patient has a substance abuse problem. In many cases, hospitals deny availability to people without insurance. If time runs out and no bed is located, a magistrate will not issue a temporary detention order and the patient will be released.

"This happens repeatedly across Virginia. We have emergency staff that are really struggling," says Michael Gilmore, who spent 20 years as executive director of the community services board in Bath County. He says the solution to the problem comes down to one thing — money.

"And one of the things we can do is, we can expand Medicaid as a result of the Affordable Care Act. Many more people will have access to insurance, and maybe more hospitals will be willing to accept people," he says.

Thirty years ago, Virginia made a $65 million investment in mental health known as the Make Waves Initiative. Then after Virginia Tech, another $29 million was invested. But since the economic downturn, many local governments have been cutting back. 

In the next few weeks, the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services is expected to publish a report recommending reforms to the emergency evaluation process — just in time for the General Assembly session.

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