Long waiting list for mental health services

Debra Moore
Staff Writer

The waiting list stands at 70 people, and both the Plumas County Board of Supervisors and the Mental Health Department want to do something about it.

Mental Health Director Peter Livingston appeared before the supervisors March 18 to ask for some immediate help and to lay out a long-term staffing plan.

“Seventy people on a wait list regardless of the issue is 70 people too many,” Livingston said. “We have to address that.”

“Obviously you’re trying to staff up,” Board Chairman Jon Kennedy said, and asked about those on the waiting list.

Livingston explained that the wait list is triaged so that those who need the most help are seen first. When asked to describe what circumstances would result in receiving immediate care, Livingston cited the examples of someone threatening suicide, or a teen who is cutting herself.

Kennedy asked for examples of circumstances that are considered nonemergency, to which Livingston listed depression, anxiety issues and family problems.

Supervisor Lori Simpson noted that Livingston had worked at the department for a long time, and asked him if the waiting list had ever included so many people.

“No,” he responded and guaranteed that he could address it once his department is fully staffed.

The discussion turned to individuals who were presented with mental health as well as drug and alcohol problems.

“Do we have staff that can handle co-occurring issues?” Kennedy asked.

Livingston mentioned a couple of staff members, and then segued into salary.

“To have truly specialized behavioral health staff, they should receive compensation,” Livingston said.

In his backup material for future agenda topics, Livingston addressed that need.

“The Department continues to struggle with attracting, hiring and retaining qualified clinical staff,” he wrote. “The most readily available change that can be made in this area is to implement a SALARY ADJUSTMENT that will make Plumas County Mental Health a competitive employer of licensed clinical staff on a state-wide basis.”

During the March 18 meeting, Livingston received authorization to hire for four positions: mental health program chief, systems technician, nurse and a technical services assistant.

Funding for the positions comes from state and federal sources; there is no county general fund contribution.

Livingston’s future plans include hiring two case managers, three to four clinicians, an administrative assistant, a tele-psych nursing program chief and a coordinator for the Mental Health Services Act. As with the positions approved March 18, they require no general fund money.

Kennedy and Supervisor Thrall encouraged Livingston to return with his requests as soon as possible.

During a follow-up interview, Livingston said he planned to return to the boardroom in mid-April.

Livingston said he hasn’t been in a hurry to seek additional positions because he can’t fill those that he has available now, and he blames that at least partially on inadequate salaries.

“We are definitely in the lower echelons of comparable counties,” Livingston said, “and we are competing on a statewide basis.”

While he is short on staff, he is long on people who need assistance. Besides those on the waiting list, Livingston said he fears that there are more who haven’t sought service because they are aware of the long wait time.

And the implementation of electronic medical records requires more time from the staff that he currently has.

Livingston is restructuring his department on a more decentralized model than has been used in the past.

Doing so requires creating new job descriptions, but because that is a very time-consuming process, and both he and the supervisors want to hire staff as quickly as possible, Livingston said he will work with the job classifications that are currently available.

“The ultimate goal is to minimize the wait time for service,” Livingston said.

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