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Lawmakers told community mental health services lacking

Rep. Dave Hancock, right, R-Bemidji, asks a question about regulations and paperwork during a mental health forum Saturday morning at North Country Regional Hospital. At left is Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

Two Bemidji lawmakers heard Saturday what they didn't want to hear -- ways to spend money the state doesn't have.

But if they do, the state will save money in the long run in more expensive medical care and in law enforcement, mental health officials told Sen. John Carlson and Rep. Dave Hancock, both Bemidji Republicans.

They received a Mental Health 101 primer from the 25 professionals, meeting in North Country Regional Hospital's Education Room. It included a glossary of mental health terms.

"We're not asking for Cadillac tires, just tires with enough tread on them," said Robin Wold, director of Hope House in Bemidji, playing upon Hancock's background as a tire store co-owner.

Wold told the lawmakers that there isn't enough community-based mental health services in Bemidji, but if what is in the community is reduced, people will seek more expensive services through the hospital emergency room or through law enforcement and jail time.

"Stable funding means a stable community," she said.

"Cutting back from current levels will mean stressed staff and more patient trips to the hospital.

Hancock asked about regulations and paperwork, and several professionals labeled it a major problem.

Lenore Barsness, executive director of the Upper Mississippi Mental Health Center, said it may take up to eight hours to do an assessment for chemical dependency problems related to mental health treatment, much of it to satisfy state rules and regulations.

Keeping community-based services will provide treatment at a lower cost than emergency rooms, said Tim Hall, NCRH Emergency Room director, adding that the emergency room sees about 300 mental health cases a year, costing about $500,000.

Beltrami County Commissioner Jim Lucachick also said transportation is an issue from the hospital ER to a mental health treatment facility after assessment. The chore used to be done by law enforcement, but area sheriffs now refuse to provide that service.

Bemidji also has a state-run Community Behavioral Health Hospital, but it has only 16 beds -- not enough capacity for the community, several said.

Audrey Thayer, a volunteer with Peoples Church, said that the Bemidji community sees more people with mental health issues because they're dumped here from other areas. Some are newly released by the Department of Corrections.

"We're not asking for any more money, just to not be the first one cut," said Cheryl Byers of the Bemidji State University Social Work Department, who moderated the forum