Benton County commissioners OK mental health management plan at jail

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldMay 14, 2013 

Benton County commissioners Tuesday gave their blessing to a plan aimed at improving management of mental health issues in the Benton County jail.

The plan includes hiring a full-time mental health professional with a background in crisis intervention, and contracting -- on a part-time basis -- with a medical services provider trained in psychiatry, such as a nurse practitioner, physician or clinical pharmacist.

Goals include reducing suicide attempts and suicides, injuries to employees and inmates, and use of extraordinary measures such as restraints.

Officials also hope to cut down on the length of time inmates experience acute symptoms and reduce costs associated with fake or exaggerated symptoms.

Ed Thornbrugh, director of the Benton Franklin Department of Human Services, presented the proposal during the commission's regular weekly meeting.

It grew out of a discussion with Benton County Sheriff's officials and jail chaplains, he said.

Commissioner Shon Small, board chairman, said the proposal is "an absolute win-win," adding that "it's a very good way to start looking at things, for the near future, to make ourselves more efficient."

The proposal -- which also includes creating a fund to help with un-reimbursed psychiatric medication costs, instead of leaving them to the jail to cover -- won't cost the county any extra money.

"We're not asking commissioners for any more funding from (the general fund). We're not asking them to raise any taxes. ... We're going to do this within the approved budget that we already have," Thornbrugh said.

He told the Herald he hopes to have the new mental health professional and contract medical services provider hired by the beginning of July. They'll be in addition to the three-member team from Lourdes Counseling Center that works in the jail on a contract.

Also Tuesday:

-- Commissioners heard from the chairman of the Benton County Water Conservancy Board on an alternative to a proposed agreement dealing with rural domestic water supply management in the Yakima Basin. Commissioners have concerns about the pact.

They're expected to discuss it more in-depth during a special meeting on water issues at 9 a.m. Wednesday at the justice center, 7122 W. Okanogan Place, Kennewick.

-- Commissioners heard an update on the county's dog shelter. In 2012, the shelter took in 291 dogs. Of those, 122 were adopted and 79 were transferred.

"We increased our efforts to transfer dogs to various no-kill rescues. Our goal was to get the dogs in and out of our shelter. If we can't adopt them out, we want to get them to an agency that can adopt them out," said Keith Mercer, animal control manager.

A total of 42 were returned to their owners, compared to 73 in 2011 -- a drop Mercer attributed to the department's education efforts. "Since Animal Control has been in place, it looks like owners are actually containing their dogs," he told commissioners.

Forty-six dogs were euthanized last year; Mercer said that only happens out of medical necessity or when the stray dog is deemed potentially dangerous or dangerous. "We have not euthanized for space, nor do we plan to euthanize for space," he said.

The average length of stay in 2012 was 26 days.

Mercer also provided statistics for 2011, which was the year the shelter opened, and through April of this year. Check them out at tinyurl.com/bentonanimalcontrol.

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