Law Enforcement: Lack of Resources for Mental Health in Iowa a Major Problem

DES MOINES, Iowa -- "We`re shutting a lot of state facilities down here in Iowa and where do they go? Where do they go? They need somewhere to be," said U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA), while meeting with nearly a dozen law enforcement agencies Thursday in Pleasant Hill to talk about the challenges officers are facing on the job.

The issue of mental health kept coming up, as officers expressed frustration over the issue.

"If they can`t find assistance anywhere else, they`re going to call 911, and the police are gonna respond and EMS may respond, and if we are not well equipped to respond to that and we don`t have any place to put them, it just means that we`re going to be called again," said one of the officers.

"Just earlier this week I was having another discussion with a chamber of commerce group and their city administrator mentioned they had a case in their county, those deputies had to stay with that individual 75 hours, 75 hours because they could not find a bed to admit someone," said Senator Ernst.

The Des Moines Police Department says there are rarely any beds available.

"We have found that a lot of people that we do take to the hospital, because they really need to be there, they`re spending days in the ER because there`s no mental health bed for them to go to," said Senior Police Officer Kelly Drane, who is the Police Liaison for the Mobile Crisis Team. "Or when a bed pops up in a different city, then they`ll get shipped out of town which can be inconvenient for them or their families if they`re here."

Robert Rigg, the Director of the Criminal Defense Program at Drake University and a Professor of Law, has written published material about the subject of mental health.

"When we shut down...the mental health facilities, we essentially evacuated them and those individuals who were currently there being treated were essentially put out on the street or returned to their communities," said Professor Rigg. "Well, if you return somebody to the community with a mental health problem, the mental health problem doesn`t go away because we closed the facility. The mental health problem is still there. Then the question is, do you have adequate facilities on a community basis to treat individuals who have mental health issues, and the answer, quite frankly, is no."

When asked for further comment on the subject, Senator Ernst responded with the following statement.

Mental health deserves and requires appropriate attention and support. I'm talking with folks across the state - within communities, families, first responders, and health care providers alike - to identify ways to improve access to mental health services and the best path forward. There won't be a quick fix solution, but rather this is a necessary discussion on how federal, state, and local partners can collaborate on solutions that best meet the mental health needs in different communities across the country. As this conversation continues, I encourage folks to reach out to my office and offer your ideas and feedback.

Last month, The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether Governor Terry Branstad violated state law last year by using his line-item veto authority to close two of the state's four mental health institutes, the Mount Pleasant and Clarinda locations.

With regard to the High Court deciding whether the Governor violated the law in vetoing funding for the two facilities,  Ben Hammes, communications director for Governor Branstad, issued the following statement.

Gov. Branstad believes this case is moot for several reasons.  The fact remains that every Senate Democrat suing the state voted to not fund the two mental health institutions in question  and keep them closed in House File 2460 (Roll Call Vote can be found here).  Also, a Polk County district court judge ruled in November that the governor has the authority to take the actions he took in an effort to transition the way Iowa delivers mental health services.  We are focused on delivering mental health services now in a modern community-based way rather than institutionalizing people in old outdated buildings.   

The facts can’t be disputed.  At any given time, the Department of Human Services’ bed-tracking system shows that we have around 100 open inpatient psychiatric beds available around the state.  Gov. Branstad has signed over $310 million in mental health care funding since 2011.  The Iowa Health and Wellness Plan provides mental health care to 150,000 more Iowans today that did not have coverage before.  Iowans have more access to mental health care than ever before in a community based setting, which experts agree, is better for the patient.