BROOKSVILLE — The number of mental health centers in Hernando County that treat people taken into custody for their own protection is about to be cut in half.
The Harbor will close its 10-bed crisis stabilization unit effective Jan. 31. The move will allow the facility to expand its outpatient services, said Gail Ryder, vice president of behavioral health for BayCare Health System.
On a typical day, only about three or four of the crisis beds are filled, Ryder said.
"It was an underutilized service," Ryder said. "That's a very good thing, because that's not where you want patients to be. We saw this as a good way to way to repurpose our staff to the most appropriate level of care."
Still, the decision worried officials with the Hernando Sheriff's Office and Department of Health and Human Services, as well as local mental health advocates.
"Any time you're talking about taking away services from a community, there's always a concern, especially when the services are limited," said Veda Ramirez, the county's health and human services manager.
The Harbor, located just west of the Suncoast Parkway on Grove Road, is one of only two facilities that accepts patients taken into custody under the Florida Mental Health Act, also known as the Baker Act.
The law allows people to be taken for mental health examination against their will if they show a substantial likelihood of causing serious injury to themselves or others. They can be held up to 72 hours — longer if a psychiatrist deems it necessary — as health officials devise an appropriate care plan.
The other designated Baker Act receiving center is Springbrook Hospital, a 66-bed psychiatric hospital also on Grove Road. The law also allows patients to be transported to hospital emergency rooms.
State law requires mental health facilities to accept Baker Act patients regardless of age. As part of a local agreement in place for several years, however, deputies deliver patients up to 64 years old to the Harbor, while Springbrook takes patients 65 and older.
Sheriff's officials worried that BayCare's decision would force deputies to drive juveniles south to the BayCare facility in Land O'Lakes, tying up precious manpower, said Lt. Col. Royce Decker.
"You could be down there two to three hours," Decker said.
But now that Springbrook is the only designated Baker Act receiving site, it is required to accept patients regardless of age, Ramirez said. At least some of those patients would then be referred to the Harbor or another facility for long-term treatment.
Officials at Springbrook and the Harbor have been helpful in planning for the changes, Decker said.
"It's going to be seamless," he said.
There are financial issues to hash out. State mandate requires the county to give matching funds to the Harbor for crisis care and other services. That's why BayCare's report on the occupancy rate of its crisis stabilization unit raised concerns, Ramirez said.
"We were paying for empty beds," she said.
County staff is working with the Department of Children of Families to figure out how the contract will be affected by BayCare's new strategy, Ramirez said. She also plans to meet with Springbrook officials to ensure a smooth transition.
The changes come as the number of people taken into custody under the Baker Act continue to steadily rise in Hernando County. In 2007, the figure was 646, according to the Sheriff's Office. Last year, it was 786.
That's why news that the county would lose crisis care beds was so troubling, said Judy Thompson, president of the Hernando affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Thompson said she was glad to hear that a transition plan is in place.
"But it doesn't improve the overall services and how difficult they are to access up here," Thompson said. "We'll have to sort of watch and see how it goes."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]