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Officials Warn Clinic's Closure May Cause Mental-Care Crisis

July 31, 1988|MICHAEL MILSTEIN | Times Staff Writer

More than 1,000 mentally ill patients could be left without treatment and hundreds of emergency calls may go unanswered each month when expected budget cuts close the San Gabriel Valley's only publicly run mental health clinic, county officials say.

Health professionals, advocates, police and patients worry that the area could face a mental-care crisis--causing a rise in crime and homelessness--when the Arcadia Mental Health Center is closed Sept. 1.

The county-run clinic employs about 25 doctors, nurses and counselors and is the largest public mental-health facility in the San Gabriel Valley with a $1.8-million annual budget. Current state and county budgets have not earmarked any funds to keep it operating.

"We're making plans to close right now," said Dr. John S. Wells, district director for the county Department of Mental Health and head of the Arcadia clinic since 1969. "We'll hope our legislators put a few more bucks in the pipe, but it doesn't look likely."

State Funds Cut

The county Department of Mental Health is faced with budget cuts of $18 million because of a drop in state funding, according to the agency's director, Roberto Quiroz. To meet that disparity, officials have targeted nine of the department's 25 facilities, including Arcadia, for closure.

The clinics are funded on a ratio of nine state dollars for every dollar of county money. So unless state officials change their plans when the Legislature reconvenes in August, there will not be nearly enough money to keep the clinics operating.

A psychiatric emergency team run by the Arcadia center would also fall victim to the shortfall. It is the only 24-hour emergency mental-care service in the San Gabriel Valley. Team members answer about 250 calls each month from people who need immediate counseling and respond with police to emergencies involving mentally ill people, such as would-be suicides.

"It's a very depressing, angry feeling for myself as well as the patients that we may not be here in a month," Perry Horowitz, a psychiatric social worker on the emergency team, said just before answering a call about a woman who had swallowed 90 tranquilizers. "The politicians just see these people as statistics. We see them as people."

The Arcadia clinic--which provided extensive counseling after the October earthquake--was included on the "curtailment list," Quiroz said, because it was judged less necessary than others. There are a few smaller San Gabriel Valley clinics that might be able to absorb some of Arcadia's regular patients, he said.

Many Turned Away

"We will try to accommodate the most severely disturbed clients if we can," Quiroz said. "But there will be some that won't be seen. We have to face that. We have to wonder how many people will need help in later years because we couldn't help them now."

Dr. Christopher Amenson, head of Pacific Clinics, a private nonprofit mental health center with branches in Duarte, Pasadena and Rosemead, said his facilities are already struggling to serve 3,000 people each year. The clinics turn away half of those asking for help because they are not "seriously enough disturbed," Amenson said, and still average a monthlong waiting list even for suicidal patients and abused children.

Both the Arcadia clinic and Pacific Clinics serve people with a monthly income of less than $1,500. About 80% earn less than $600 each month.

When the Arcadia clinic closes and patients there look for care elsewhere, Amenson expects to start turning away nine of 10 people asking for help. He also predicted a sharp increase in suicide attempts, homelessness and the number of mental patients arrested and hospitalized against their will.

"These people have serious, serious problems," Amenson said. "These are not people who are going to be OK with no treatment."

Bill, an articulate 44-year-old Temple City resident who asked that his last name not be used, has been a patient at the Arcadia clinic for nine years. In the eight years before that, he had attempted suicide, gone into extreme depression and was committed to private and state mental institutions a dozen times.

Attends Group Therapy

Bill said calmly that without professional help, he is afraid that he will revert to his suicidal tendencies and might harm others. He now attends weekly group therapy at the clinic and receives individual counseling and medication there. But Bill does not have health insurance and does not know what he will do if the clinic shuts down.

"The one thing that makes me comfortable and has kept me out of more mental institutions are the services the clinic offers," Bill said. "The threat of having that pulled away is frightening, terribly, horribly frightening."

If mental patients do not receive professional help, health officials and police are afraid some will become unstable and commit crimes or take to the streets.

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