Delaware mental health task force continues work

BEAR, Del. (AP) — A task force on Tuesday held its final meeting to wrap up work on a report aimed at updating Delaware’s mental health treatment laws and the legal rights of mentally ill patients.

Task force members are on a Jan. 1 deadline to submit their findings to the General Assembly and Gov. Jack Markell. Health and Social Services Secretary Rita Landgraf said the panel’s work will result in recommendations for comprehensive changes in state law that legislators will consider after they reconvene in January.

The task force focused on updating Delaware’s laws to reflect recent changes in the health care delivery system, including procedures for screening and treating people with mental health issues, some of whom require involuntary commitment to psychiatric facilities, Landgraf said.

“I think the code … was extremely antiquated and hadn’t been reviewed for any significant changes for decades,” Landgraf said after Tuesday’s meeting. “It really needed this level of comprehensive review.”

The task force was established last year amid debate in the General Assembly over a bill updating laws under which an adult can be held involuntarily for up to 24 hours for a mental health evaluation. That bill was followed by one signed by Markell in March that clarified immunity provisions for law enforcement and mental health professionals involved in involuntary mental health commitments.

The task force subsequently studied other issues, including improving mental health treatment for juveniles, reducing the amount of time that people suffering psychiatric crises spend in hospital emergency departments awaiting evaluation, and freeing up bed space on weekends at mental health facilities.

Officials also are considering whether to revise the practice of using law enforcement officers to transport patients to mental health facilities and contracting for private transport services instead.

Jim Lafferty, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Delaware, said state police conducted 1,200 patient transports in Kent and Sussex counties alone last year, with more than half of those transports requiring overtime pay for officers whose time might be spent more efficiently on other police duties.

Officials also are considering whether to expand a “recovery response center” model being used in Sussex County to Kent and New Castle counties. The recovery response center in Ellendale is a crisis assessment program to divert adults with significant mental health or substance use issues from hospitals to community services closer to home.

Officials acknowledged that many of the changes being recommended by the task force carry budget implications in what already promises to be a tight fiscal year.

“There are fiscal implications here that are not minimal,” Lafferty said.

Task force members agreed that some potential changes, particularly involving forced medication of mental health patients in nonemergency situations, which can include the use of restraints, could require revisions to Delaware’s Mental Health Patients’ Bill of Rights. That law asserts, among other things, that treatment will be safely and humanely administered “with full respect for the patient’s dignity and personal integrity.”

“There needs to be due process protections fleshed out in the law,” said Marissa Band, a lawyer with the Community Legal Aid Society.

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