(Photo: Florida lawmakers are trying to get funding for a Baker Act facility on the Citrus Memorial Hospital campus. Using the existing space would reduce cost and improve chances for the funding, elected officials say.)
Citrus County residents requiring mental health evaluations under the Baker Act could soon no longer have to be routed to out-of-county facilities.
State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, is proposing legislation this year for $1.1 million to fund a proposed Baker Act facility at Citrus Memorial Hospital’s Inverness campus that would include 24-hour emergency intake personnel, around-the-clock staffing and 10 beds for residents needing emergency mental health evaluations.
In the House of Representatives, Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, has House Bill 3437 requesting the same annually recurring funding.
Simpson told the Chronicle that Citrus County has gone long enough without substantial mental health resources for its residents and the proposed receiving facility is a good first step toward providing many residents the help they need.
“We’re trying to right the ship,” Simpson said. “It (the receiving facility) is part of a larger mosaic ... but it’s one of the parts we need.”
The plan is for LifeStream Behavioral Center and Citrus Memorial Hospital to partner in creating a Baker Act holding facility.
The plan is for Citrus Memorial Hospital to provide space at its medical services building and for LifeStream to operate it. Citrus Memorial Hospital this year began its own intensive outpatient mental health care at the building, which is on its campus and immediately next to the hospital.
The $1.1 million would be used to pay Citrus Memorial Hospital rent for the 10-bed space. The rest of the money would be used for staffing, which would include mental health experts to evaluate patients, administration, support workers and intake personnel at the hospital’s emergency room.
LifeStream is a mental health provider and has the state’s $2.6 million annual contract to provide an array of mental health services in Citrus County. Those services currently include help for young people, preventative care to adults and post-Baker Act services for those returning to Citrus County.
With no Baker Act facility here, LifeStream provides Baker Act care at its Leesburg facility.
During fiscal year 2012-2013, 1,133 Citrus County residents were taken out of the county for involuntary evaluations. About a fifth of those were children, according to LifeStream in its financial request to the Legislature.
In fiscal year 2016-2017, the number of involuntary evaluations increased to 1,312.
In its executive summary to the Legislature, LifeStream said the high number of Baker Act evaluations did not surprise the mental health company.
An estimated 61.7 percent of adults in Citrus County with mental illness do not receive treatment annually. This is higher than the national average of 55.8 percent, the executive summary said.
Citrus County ranked 15th in Florida for suicide rates in 2017, the most recent year data was available, according to Florida HealthCharts.
The suicide rate for Citrus County that year was 21.1, meaning 21.1 people committed suicide per 100,000 residents here. The state average was 14.1.
LifeStream Executive Vice President Rick Hankey said his company is already preparing the project, so if the Legislature grants the money the project could easily be operational by next year.
Hankey said he has also already given Citrus Memorial specifications for the facility and the hospital is working with its designers.
As for the funding, Hankey said that getting the funding from the Legislature was the best bet for now in getting the project built.
The Baker Act, formally known as the Florida Mental Health Act of 1971, allows for the involuntary institutionalization and examination of a person. Typically, it’s initiated by law enforcement, a doctor or mental health professional.
The person Baker Acted must possibly have a mental illness and be a danger to themselves or others. The Baker Act evaluation may last up to 72 hours.
Simpson said the plan is to eventually expand Citrus County’s Baker Act services to a mental health campus where additional mental health services could be offered.
Continuing to ship Baker Act patients out of the county “is not a long-term acceptable solution,” Simpson said.
He said his proposal has a good chance of being approved by the Senate.
Massullo’s Bill 3437 is now before the House’s Health Care Appropriations subcommittee.
Massullo told the Chronicle that transferring patients out of the county to Leesburg makes no sense because it ties up sheriff’s deputies and makes it inconvenient for many families who cannot travel to the Baker Act facilities to visit loved ones and friends.
The hope is also that the county contributes about $500,000 annually to the project, although Massullo said it isn’t yet defined where that local funding would come from.
Hankey said he is confident the additional local money could be found and wasn’t essential to get the project started.
The proposal improved its chances of approval once Citrus Memorial offered to lease space to the project, he said, because that reduced the cost.
Massullo also said the project has a good chance of getting funding, in part, because of his and Simpson’s support, along with the governor’s support for mental health services.
Meanwhile, Massullo said that Citrus County residents need to continue to lobby other Florida elected officials such as Sen. Aaron Bean, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, and MaryLynn Magar, chairwoman of the House Health Care Appropriations Committee, and Travis Cummings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Almost half of Florida counties do not have Baker Act facilities.
But Gene McGee, a Citrus County resident and Tallahassee lobbyist and advocate for mental-health services here, said Citrus is unique.
“The amount of people who are Baker Acted is out of proportion to our population,” he told the Chronicle. "That’s what we’re trying to fix,” he said.
Without a Baker Act facility here, six months after getting released many patients find themselves involuntarily being admitted again, he said.
If the project is approved for the funding, McGee thinks the county won’t have any trouble filling its 10 Baker Act beds.
But the Citrus Memorial site is meant to be temporary. McGee hopes the county can raise money to build a mental health campus for a larger Baker Act facility, along with longer-term residential beds for people needing longer mental health care.
The $1.1 million request is one step toward that goal, he said, and to demonstrate need.
“So ... this is not a pilot project,” he said.
Contact Chronicle reporter Fred Hiers at email@example.com or 352-397-5914.