Virginia county sues state behavioral health system for failing to admit psychiatric patient
Virginia’s state-run psychiatric hospital system was hit with a lawsuit this week after failing to admit a juvenile patient who was going through a mental health crisis.
Instead of receiving care, the patient — a foster child under the custody of the Giles County Department of Social Services — spent four days confined in a Richmond emergency room waiting for a state bed to become available, according to a petition filed by the agency against the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, which oversees the state’s eight publicly funded mental health hospitals.
The case — one of the first to challenge the state for declining a patient who was technically required to be admitted under its own regulations — is the latest blow to the agency, which faced harsh scrutiny last summer after temporarily closing more than half its hospitals to new admissions. Under Virginia’s “bed of last resort” law, state-run hospitals are required to accept patients if a space can’t be found at another facility, including private hospitals with behavioral health units.
But as publicly funded facilities continue to struggle with staffing shortages and widespread overcrowding, experts and frontline providers say the law functionally isn’t working. Alison Land, the DBHDS commissioner under former Gov. Ralph Northam, described last summer’s order as a desperate response to dangerous understaffing that limited the agency’s ability to provide care.
Even with all eight hospitals reopened to new admissions, capacity is still limited. And with a shortage of private beds, patients in crisis regularly spend days boarded in the emergency room and sometimes can’t access treatment at all.
“I’m only surprised that it took this long for there to be a lawsuit,” said Anna Mendez, executive director of the Charlottesville-based nonprofit Partner for Mental Health. “If you’re being deprived of civil rights for the purposes of your mental health treatment, you have to actually be receiving that treatment. And right now, we’re seeing people who are simply not getting that care.”
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.
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