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Leaders from Gregg, 13 other area counties to explore regional mental health care facility

By Glenn Evans
July 20, 2011 at 10 p.m.

A coalition of regional elected officials is organizing to seek solutions to problems caused by dwindling state resources for mental health care - with the long-term goal of establishing a Northeast Texas psychiatric facility.

"That's one of the two main goals," said David Cleveland, director of the East Texas Council of Governments.

The first aim of a steering committee being created by the 14 county judges in the council of governments' service area is to streamline how people with mental illnesses are helped.

The committee, which will be appointed in coming days, is likely to include many of the county judges who created it.

"It's probably going to be me," Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt said of his county's representative. "I'm so close to it."

Stoudt and the other county judges preside over mental commitments that occur when someone's illness makes them dangerous to themselves or others.

Those people typically have been sent to the closest state psychiatric hospital, which is in Rusk, but state budget cuts are removing 40 beds there.

Stoudt has lobbied regional leaders to standardize intake and processing procedures for mentally ill people and to establish a local care facility.

Such a hospital would keep patients more connected to families and other local support structures, Stoudt has said.

"Right now, our vision is just that - a vision," he said. "But just throwing money at it is the wrong answer. You've got to have a plan, short-term and long-term. And that's what this provides us. ... Now that we've got the (council of governments) involved in it, they've got the resources and staff that we don't have."

Cleveland said running the steering committee would not be an additional cost to the counties, which already pay an annual membership fee. He said his first step, once a panel is seated, would be to hire a facilitator to guide the group.

"The judge (Stoudt) and many of the judges can see, from a long-term perspective, one of the key solutions to a system that just has limited capacity is a regional health care facility," Cleveland said.

The mental health/mental retardation team, as the committee is called, is the outflow of a meeting Stoudt held in April with regional mental health and elected officials, Cleveland said.

Four mental health care providers serving the 14 counties, including Longview-based Community Healthcore, identified areas where they might overlap or lose efficiencies.

Rusk County Judge Joel Hale said he welcomed the committee, especially in the face of state budget cuts.

"I think everybody's in the same shape," he said. "You're going to have more and more of these issues, and we're being asked to handle it with less and less in our county budgets."

The committee will be asked to issue short-term and long-term recommendations by January.

Stoudt and Cleveland also noted the council of governments already is knowledgeable at finding and winning state and federal grants.

"We have a pretty good head start if that regional health care facility is recommended in the (January) report," Cleveland said.

"We'll go at that with all of our heart. You know, something like that doesn't happen overnight, but you've got to start somewhere."



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