Moorlach Bill Would Boost Local Access to Mental Health Funds

Former Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach looks to be heading to the state Senate.

Orange County police departments and hospitals would be able to tap into a special state fund for treating emergency mental health patients under legislation proposed by Republican state Sen. John Moorlach.

The bill is part of an ongoing effort by Moorlach who said he is seeking permanent, bipartisan solutions for a series of especially difficult mental illness and homeless issues.

His bill, SB1273, would make it clear that counties could help reduce local police and hospital costs by using money from state Proposition 63 for emergency treatment of adults who need immediate care so they don’t seriously harm themselves or others.

Prop. 63 is the 2004 voter-approved Mental Health Service Act which applied a 1 percent income tax on Californians earning $1 million or more.

Following “multiple conversations” with hospital representatives, police officials and others concerned with emergency mental health issues, “I said, ‘boy, we can do this,’” the Costa Mesa lawmaker said in a telephone interview.

To get his bill passed, Moorlach will need Democratic votes. The 40-member state Senate has 26 Democrats and 14 Republicans with a minimum of 21 votes needed to pass ordinary legislation.

“I think I can get bi-partisan support,” he said. “We have a lot of people who are sensitive to the mentally ill in the Senate.”

Adults who are suicidal or threatening to harm others under current law may be held for up to 72 hours for a psychiatric assessment under a section of California law known as a “5150 hold.”

But Orange County only has a single, 10-bed emergency treatment center in Santa Ana to care for them.

Overflow patients are sent to six other hospitals that can care for mental health issues. But many “5150” patients also are taken to the nine regular hospital emergency rooms in the county where they and the officers who accompany them wait an average of more than 14 hours for treatment, according to a 2015 report by the Hospital Association of Southern California (HASC). Hospitals can wind up not being reimbursed for all costs.

Tustin alone, with a population of roughly 80,000, had 155 such emergency cases in 2015, said Police Chief Charles F. Celano Jr., who represents the Orange County Chiefs of Police and Sheriff’s Association on the issue.

No overall statistics were immediately available for Orange County or its largest cities, Anaheim and Santa Ana.

In a news conference last week, Moorlach said he would like to see Orange County work with hospitals to create at least one center where enough emergency psychiatric help would be immediately available, or at least on call, to handle all cases brought in by police.

Celano said in a telephone interview Feb. 29 that, in addition to having only 10 beds, the current center in Santa Ana must turn away anyone who needs other medical treatment.

Moorlach said he began working on the bill soon after taking his Senate seat. “It was something I made as a high priority early on,” he said.

The bill, which Moorlach introduced on Feb. 18, is still in its very early stages and hasn’t been assigned to a committee and organizations with an interest in it haven’t yet done analyses or taken positions.

But Randall Hagar, lobbyist for the California Psychiatric Association, said in a telephone interview the bill “is consistent” with prior association policies.

Another law enacted last year, he said, helped clarify for law enforcement that family warnings can be used to avoid situations like occurred in May, 2014 when the family of Elliot Rodger warned he might be a threat but officers were unable to substantiate it.

Rodger killed six people and then shot himself in an attack near UC Santa Barbara.

Until the late 1960s, California, like many states, operated a series of large mental hospitals for long-term care of adults with serious mental disabilities.

In 1967, the Legislature passed and Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, ending involuntary, indefinite commitment of mental patients to institutions in California.

The idea, said the late Assemblyman Frank Lanterman, R-La Canada, at the time, was to have community clinics treat the long-term patients. But the Legislature never provided the money for the local treatment centers.

As an Orange County Supervisor, Moorlach chaired a commission from 2010 to 2014 that studied ways to end homelessness, which includes a core population with mental health issues.

After schizophrenic transient Kelly Thomas was beaten to death by Fullerton police on July 5, 2011, Moorlach led county efforts to adopt Laura’s Law,  a 2002 state law that allows the courts to order outpatient treatment for seriously mentally ill adults.

But the county counsel’s office advised him Laura’s Law couldn’t be financed by Prop. 63. Then-state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), who wrote Prop. 63, introduced legislation to specify its money could be spent on Laura’s Law and Moorlach traveled to Sacramento to help support the bill.

After Steinberg’s bill passed in 2014, Orange County became the second in California to adopt Laura’s Law.

In December, Moorlach joined Steinberg, who was termed out, and state Sen. Kevin de Leon, (D-Los Angeles), in a plan to create housing for homeless adults with mental illness.

You can contact Tracy Wood at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.