The maximum length of time for emergency commitment of someone suffering from mental illness or addiction who is an immediate danger to themselves or others will increase from 48 hours to eight days, and for involuntary commitment from five to 30 days, if two bills approved in V.I. Senate committee Wednesday become law.
"Oftentimes, 48 hours or even five days is not sufficient to determine if medication will work or even to determine what medications might work," Sen. Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly, the bills’ sponsor, told the
Health, Hospitals and Human Services Committee.
Increasing the time will give families of a troubled individual the opportunity to regroup, to figure out how to obtain the services they need and to allow them to make plans to take the person off-island for treatment, she said.
Rivera-O’Reilly recounted the story of a family on St. Croix who was dealing with this, with an 18-year-old who needed to be committed, but found it impossible to make arrangements in time to take them off-island. The agency "had to make a decision to break the law and keep the person longer or release them to the unprepared mother. The mother was totally frustrated," Rivera-O’Reilly said.
Rivera-O’Reilly said mental illness is tied with an array of societal problems, from violent crime to homelessness, and making it easier for families to plan treatment will help.
Bureau of Corrections Director Rick Mullgrav and Deputy Attorney General Joseph Ponteen testified in support of the "intent" of the bills, saying there is a strong need for more mental health care. Ponteen also said the standard for emergency commitment should be loosened from its current standard.
The courts are often constrained in committing someone who cannot care for themselves but who does not have insight and has not threatened anyone, Ponteen said.
Mullgrav said too often individuals who need treatment are incarcerated.
"In most cases, incarceration would be unnecessary if treatment options were available," he said.
But there have to be treatment programs to send people to them, he said.
"Models across the nation involve drug courts that sentence people to mandatory rehabilitation programs" instead of jail, Mullgrav said. "But courts cannot send individuals to nonexistent programs," he said.
Health Commissioner Michelle Davis raised concerns about creating a financial cost to the patient and creating a mandatory, but unfunded, expense for government agencies like hers.
Increasing the maximum times for the two types of commitment "serves to increase our costs with no permanent solution," she said.
"It appears to again foster a cycle of holding and releasing that would put a strain on our public health care system at this particular time, she said, adding that it "places an undue disadvantage to Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital" and other government services. Courts could order care off-island at government expense, she said.
Rivera-O’Reilly said V.I. Code is "replete" with unfunded mandates and cited several government boondoggles that wasted money as an indication that the government finds money for some things, while critical needs remain unmet.
Usually bills move to the Rules and Judiciary Committee before going to the Senate floor, but Rivera-O’Reilly moved to send both bills straight to the Senate floor for a final vote. Voting for the bills were Rivera-O’Reilly, Sens. Marvin Blyden, Jean Forde, Novelle Francis, Almando "Rocky" Liburd and Kurt Vialet. Sen. Justin Harrigan was absent.
The committee also sent on bills to change the V.I. Cancer Registry’s guidelines to conform to uniform federal data format requirements; appropriating $32,647 for agricultural and mechanical programs in the Youth Rehabilitation Center; and designating the V.I. Developmental Disabilities Council Inc. as a private agency authorized to receive federal funds directly. Those bills will be considered next in the Rules and Judiciary Committee.
The changes to the cancer registry, sponsored by Liburd, were supported by the Health Department, the American Cancer Society and others, who said it would both improve the program and make it easier to get federal funding.
Vialet, sponsor of the small appropriation for vocational programs at YRC, said he had visited and discovered that the mechanical program was based entirely on a volunteer using his own resources and that the agricultural program needed materials too.
Police, Justice Department, Corrections officials and senators all agreed that vocational programs for youth at YRC were important to help prevent some from ending up in prison later.
"If we can reduce one person from YRC from going to Golden Grove it has more than paid for itself," Vialet said.
It costs $48,000 per year to house an inmate in Golden Grove, Mullgrav added.
Labor Commissioner Catherine Hendry said she would be more supportive if there was a demonstrated need for mechanics and farmers in the territory. Tying the program to demonstrated needs could help to get federal funding, she said.
"Neither mechanics or farming are on the territory’s Demand Occupation List. However, if it can be proven that jobs are readily available in these areas and that there are specific jobs available that require this skill set, a case may then be made to fund it," Hendry said. “The youth must obtain the security of a job offer in that specific field prior to starting the training. This is why employer engagement is required and is key to successfully running this program by incorporating federal funds.”
Sen. Myron Jackson, sponsor of the measure designating the V.I. Developmental Disabilities Council Inc. as a private agency authorized to receive federal funds directly, said the VIDDC already used the federal funds but had lost access to them because of compliance problems at the Department of Human Services.
VIDDC Executive Director Yvonne Petersen testified that, in 2011, U.S. Health and Human Services suspended its funding because of noncompliance with federal regulations and required the council to become independent so it could advocate without interference from any agency.
Acting Human Services Commissioner Anita Roberts testified in support of the change.
All three bills were approved without opposition, with Harrigan absent.