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Merit in Suit for Funds

July 20, 1986

In San Francisco, a mentally ill person coming off a hospitalization can be sent to a county-run transitional residential treatment program offering professional psychiatric monitoring in an atmosphere that helps pave the way for a return to home and normal life. In San Diego County, a patient with a similar illness would be released with the hope that he or she has the motivation and the money to check into a private facility.

The difference points to what San Diego County officials says is a wide gap between the mental health services available in San Francisco and Los Angeles Counties and those available here. The reason for the gap, they say, is a system of allocating state funds for mental health that is heavily weighted in favor of those counties and against San Diego and Orange Counties.

Recognizing that the more powerful delegations from San Francisco and Los Angeles make it virtually impossible to obtain a reallocation of the state support through the Legislature, the Board of Supervisors has filed a lawsuit against the state seeking a more equitable distribution of funding for mental health, alcohol and drug abuse programs.

The county seems to have a good point. In the last fiscal year, San Diego County was 56th of the 58 counties in the level of state funding per capita for drug programs; for mental health, it was 48th among the counties. In actual dollars, the county received $33 million from the state for mental health programs. If the distribution had been made according to need, it would have received $49 million, according to a county study. Were it made on the basis of population, San Diego--the second most populous county--would have gotten $54 million.

The county's hopes for redressing the imbalance will ride on the argument that a state Supreme Court decision requiring all school districts to receive similar funding should be applied to these other services as well. Several legal authorities have suggested the outcome may depend on whether a court eventually rules that mental health, drug and alcohol services are fundamental rights of all residents, as education was found to be.

This is one of those legal issues that will take years to adjudicate. But we think Supervisor George Bailey, who first proposed the lawsuit, is correct in thinking that the county must make some effort to rectify an unpalatable situation. We hope this move gets the Legislature's attention and some relief is provided short of a court decision. If the Legislature won't act, then let the suit run its course.

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