The Centers Comm Focus

The Centers based in Ocala is one of the primary location for transport of Citrus County Baker Act patients.

Citrus County’s long struggle to provide better mental health care to its residents could soon bear some fruit, as one county commissioner looks to use new tax revenues to buy a building that would serve as a Baker Act assessment facility.

Commission Chairman Jeff Kinnard told the Chronicle that he will ask fellow commission members during the their regularly scheduled public meeting Tuesday to consider funding a Baker Act assessment facility. Kinnard said he will ask the other commissioners to use tax revenues from Duke Energy’s new natural gas plants to fund the project.

Kinnard wants to use $300,000 this year and $700,000 next year to buy the former Brannen Bank building in Hernando.

The plan is to use the building to evaluate Baker Act patients and decide there whether to transport them to Leesburg for further evaluation. Eventually, though, Kinnard wants the building to be converted to a standalone facility to house a small number of residential Baker Act clients during their full three-day evaluations if that’s what they need.

Describing the county’s need for such services as “critically important,” Kinnard said the “purpose of this is to improve the behavioral mental health care in our county.”

Earlier this year, the Florida Legislature awarded Citrus County $600,000 to provide Baker Act receiving services through LifeStream Behavioral Services. LifeStream is a mental health provider and has the state’s annual contract to provide an array of mental health services in Citrus County.

But that money was to evaluate Baker Act patients taken to Citrus Memorial Hospital, and if necessary, transport them the LifeStream’s residential Baker Act facility in Leesburg.

In fiscal year 2016-2017, the number of involuntary evaluations of Citrus County residents after they were transported out of the county was 1,312. The number has been increasing annually, and community leaders have pushed for a residential Baker Act facility here.

Kinnard thinks that the Baker Act assessment facility would be a good step toward eventually having a residential facility in the county.

The Baker Act, formally known as the Florida Mental Health Act of 1971, allows for the involuntary institutionalization and examination of a person. Typically, it’s initiated by law enforcement, a doctor or mental health professional. The evaluation may last up to 72 hours.

But Kinnard thinks that most Baker Act patients can be evaluated much quicker and most of those patients suffering a crisis can be de-escalated in a day and gotten help outside a residential Baker Act facility. That’s where the Baker Act assessment facility would be useful, he said.

The plan would be for the county to buy the building and allow LifeStream to provide the mental health evaluations, transporting those who need additional evaluations to its residential facility in Leesburg.

“(But) ultimately, the hope is to get some beds in the facility in this county,” Kinnard said.

Kinnard thinks he’ll get county commission support to fund the project, based on previous public discussions about the need for better Baker Act care and the advantage to having a facility here.

“Everyone agreed this is a priority,” he said.

Commissioner Jimmie T. Smith said the county needs to step in instead of hope state elected officials approve funding one day.

Earlier this year, state Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and state Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, tried to get funding for a residential Baker Act facility here, but the proposal failed to garner broad support in the Capitol. Instead, the Legislature awarded the county money for LifeStream to fund an assessment operation.

“We should have done this a long time ago,” Smith said of Kinnard’s plans.

“We should fund the needs in our community rather than going to the state,” he said. “The revenue is there and this is the kind of investment that would benefit the county as a whole.”

In its executive summary to the Legislature asking for money for Citrus County, LifeStream said the high number of Baker Act evaluations did not surprise the mental health company.

An estimated 61.7 percent of adults in Citrus County with mental illness do not receive treatment annually. This is higher than the national average of 55.8 percent, the executive summary said.

Citrus County ranked 15th in Florida for suicide rates in 2017, the most recent year data was available, according to Florida HealthCharts.

The suicide rate for Citrus County that year was 21.1, meaning 21.1 people committed suicide per 100,000 residents here. The state average was 14.1.

Kinnard said he’s been talking with LifeStream representatives about his plan and they are interested.

LifeStream did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

County Commissioner Scott Carnahan he would be willing to hear out Kinnard.

“I look forward to discussing it Tuesday’s meeting,” he said. “I don’t have any issues with it.”

Kinnard said now that the county is getting the additional Duke Energy tax revenue it was time to act.

“This can’t be just talking about it,” Kinnard said. “But rather we have to put real resources toward improving (mental) health care for the residents of the county.”

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Contact Chronicle reporter Fred Hiers at fred.hiers@chronicleonline.com or 352-397-5914.

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