King County leaders are proposing a tax levy on behavioral health clinics

For people who are in mental health crisis, there are no community clinics available in King County. There are now efforts to change that.

Earlier today, elected leaders including King County Executive Doe Constantine and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced plans for not one, but five crisis care centers. KUOW’s Paige Browning talks with Kim Malcolm about the development.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Kim Malcolm: What did the officials announce today?

Paige Browning: A big offer for cooperation. Not only does the county lack mental health centers, but it also lost more than 100 treatment beds, and the county wants them back.

Why is this issue urgent now?

Behavioral health, including mental health and substance abuse disorders, is an intersection where all sorts of other issues meet: the ability to afford rent or utilities, to take care of yourself, and to take care of family. Officials have determined that this intersection has been left neglected in some way and needs attention now. King County Councilman Girmai Zahilai is one of many government officials who have come forward with this proposal:

“If you break a bone in King County, you can come in and get emergency care. If you’re going through a mental health crisis or a substance use crisis, you don’t have emergency care options for a population of 2.3 million people. And that’s why we see so many of our brothers and sisters, our family members, our neighbors, suffering out in the open with a mental health crisis, or feeding their addictions at bus stops, or cycling between emergency rooms and prisons and homelessness. It’s because there’s nowhere for people to go.”

What needs to happen for these crisis clinics to open?

Three steps really. First, the county board will soon vote on whether to approve this as a ballot measure. Second, it will go to voters as a tax levy next April. Third, if voters approve it, the tax kicks in and starts bringing in money. This first voting step is almost official, as the majority of the county council already supports this proposal.

It won’t happen without voter approval and massive funding. Tell us how this will be paid for.

In short, a property tax. The county decided it needed $1.25 billion to do that. The levy will be added to property tax bills for nine years. By simple math, that would cost the average homeowner about $10 a month. This would bring in money to bring in these centers and elements of a behavioral care system.

People know it’s not easy to get the care or treatment you or your loved one needs in this area. Once the clinics are up and running, who will be able to use them?

Anyone could walk into these clinics and receive care: someone with financial ability or insurance, someone without insurance, someone with a substance abuse crisis or mental health emergency could simply walk in and be treated and/or referred to the right place.

In a broader context, Washington ranks sixth in the nation for the highest prevalence of mental illness among adults. That’s as of 2021. About 2 in 10 Washington adults live with a behavioral health disorder or illness. And it’s very prevalent among children, so much so that Governor Jay Inslee declared a youth mental health crisis this past year, so the need is there.

Do we know where these clinics will go?

No exact locations yet, but I can tell you one area for sure, northern King County. In a way, that’s where this whole discussion started. Also, we don’t know the exact locations, but one will cater to the youngsters.

The crisis facilities are part of a larger behavioral health plan announced today. What else is on offer?

Also included are plans to re-open dozens of beds in mental health facilities that have closed due to funding problems – 100 hospital beds have closed since 2008. And the final piece of the package is creating career paths for people to enter behavioral health care, such as apprenticeships, training and fair wages for people entering this workforce.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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