County Officials Testify Before Senate Finance Committee Hearing on State Mental Health Services

Panel examines state hospital capacity, the impact of mental health issues on county jails and other related matters as it prepares for next year's legislative session.

July 28, 2022

Legislative News

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The Senate Committee on Finance met June 28 to discuss its interim charge related to mental health delivery, which directs it to:

  • Examine the state mental health service delivery system.
  • Study the state's comprehensive plan for state-funded inpatient mental health services and the Statewide Behavioral Strategic Plan.
  • Evaluate existing state investments in mental health services and state hospital capacity.
  • Review current forensic and civil mental health service waitlists.
  • Explore additional mental health service capacity options, including building state hospitals in the Panhandle and Rio Grande Valley.

Several county officials testified. Potter County Judge Nancy Tanner conducts all mental health hearings for 25 of the 26 Panhandle counties and told the committee that a state hospital is needed to serve the region. Tanner indicated that land had been donated for that purpose in Amarillo.

Potter County Sheriff Brian Thomas said his office had hired two licensed professional counselors to provide mental health services in the county jail, which regularly houses inmates with mental health issues – about 350 cases annually, he said. Thomas noted that housing an inmate with mental health issues, particularly those awaiting transfer to state hospitals, costs Potter County about $112 per day. Ordinarily, the cost to house an inmate is $71 per day. To reduce the impact on county taxpayers, Thomas relies on medications donated by drug companies and cost savings by using the licensed counselors rather than psychiatrists to provide services.

When asked by Finance Committee Chair Joan Huffman (R-Houston), Tanner said Potter County's greatest need was a place for people to go after receiving required court-ordered counseling. Instead, these people must wait six to 12 months for a state hospital bed. Huffman asked Tanner about the nearest state hospital and its capacity. Tanner said it was in Wichita Falls, 225 miles from Potter County, but did not know its capacity. Huffman stated that Wichita Falls State Hospital consistently has a waitlist.

Lubbock County Sheriff Kelly Rowe and Chambers County Sheriff Brian Hawthorn testified on behalf of the Sheriffs' Association of Texas. Rowe touched on the impact of mental health issues on county jail operations, noting that inmates with mental health issues stay in jail longer than other inmates. Rowe also referred to Thomas' comments regarding the higher daily cost for inmates with mental health issues.

Hawthorn testified that the mental health jail diversion initiatives and grant funds authorized by Senate Bill 292 and Senate Bill 1849 greatly assisted counties, particularly the funding for local mental health authorities (LMHA) provided by SB 292. Hawthorn asked that funding for these grants continue, but with an increase in the state match for rural counties from 50% to 100%. Hawthorn advocated for in-jail competency restoration, noting that inmates ordered to state hospitals in Chambers County must wait 330 days for an available bed. He indicated that a few counties in his LMHA's catchment area have successful in-jail competency restoration pilots and strongly encouraged the committee to earmark grant funds to LMHAs for jail-based competency restoration.

"Come up with a plan and a bill and bring it to me. We'll get it done," Huffman said in response.

Other county officials who testified included Andrew Lopez, the mental health deputy from the Colorado County Sheriff's Office, and Russell Schaffner, Tarrant County's assistant county administrator for governmental affairs. Lopez requested grant funding for rural counties to provide mental health training for local law enforcement or to create mental health deputies. He also testified that the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) recently reduced its mental health training from 40 to 24 hours, which he believes is insufficient. Schaffner asked that the state begin funding diversion centers and create a funding pool to reimburse counties for inmates in jail for long periods due to the need for forensic beds.

Throughout the hearing, Finance Committee members assured local officials they were willing to work with them on various proposals to reduce the impact of gaps in the state's mental health delivery system on Texas counties.

Finance Committee hearing materials provided by the Health and Human Services Commission and the Legislative Budget Board are available online.

For more information about this article, please contact Austin McCarty or Zelma Smith.