AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — Amarillo officials, including Potter County Judge Nancy Tanner, Potter County Sheriff Brian Thomas, and two psychiatrists, recently traveled to Austin, speaking in front of the state’s Senate Finance Committee about mental health and the importance of Amarillo having a state funded mental health hospital.

According to previous reports by MyHighPlains.com, Amarillo Mayor Ginger Nelson previously spoke about the region’s need for a state mental health facility in Amarillo.

“We live in a mental health resource desert here. We need a state mental hospital here. We need psychiatrists, especially pediatric psychiatrists. We need access points for kids to get social services and wrap-around support for mental health services,” Nelson said.

Wednesday’s Hearing

During the meeting, Tanner said this hospital will be beneficial not only to Amarillo but to the Panhandle. Currently, in Amarillo, Tanner states that patients are stuck in ‘The Pavilion,’ located at the Northwest Texas Healthcare System Behavioral Health Department, and let out early due to the facility not being long-term.

Tanner said this fact lands these patients back on the streets, with there often not being room in the North Texas State Hospital in Wichita Falls. During the hearing, Tanner let the committee know that she has seven acres of land near the Medical Center which was donated to her by the Amarillo Area Foundation and the Harrington Cancer Center.

Tanner said the greatest need in Amarillo is that people need a place to go locally when they are ordered to a facility.

During the hearing, Thomas spoke about the number of inmates in Potter County who are court-ordered to state hospitals. Thomas said that out of the 24 who have recently been court-ordered to state hospitals, five have been in custody at the Potter County Sheriff’s Office for more than a year.

However, Thomas said the sheriff’s office recently hired two licensed professional counselors to help with mental health inmates, saving the office some money. However, Thomas also said there is a need for a facility in Amarillo.

Richard Jordan, the regional dean of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center’s School of Medicine and one of the psychiatrists who spoke during the hearing said that he also sees a need for a state mental health hospital in Amarillo.

Jordan said that a state hospital facility will give Amarillo the opportunity to be a catalyst for a psychiatry residency program through the school of medicine. Jordan stressed that establishing this program would help more psychiatrists be available within the region.

Kevin Sparks, the Republican nominee for the Texas Senate 31 seat, also provided his thoughts on the importance of a state mental health hospital in Amarillo after sitting in on the Senate Finance Committee hearing.

“I had a very productive time in Austin on Tuesday, sitting in on the Senate Finance Committee hearing as they discussed mental health issues,” Sparks said in a post made to his Facebook page. “I am very encouraged by the work that is already happening across our state concerning mental health and I’m optimistic that we can bring that same focus to District 31.”

What officials had to say after the hearing

On Thursday, Judge Tanner said she is in charge of all mental health hearings for 25 of the Texas Panhandle’s 26 counties.

“Since I’ve been in office, I’ve done over 4,800 mental health commitments. Only half of those were ordered to go to the state hospital in Wichita Falls, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive for our law enforcement people,” said Tanner. “But less than 5% got to go because there’s no room. There’s a wait time.”

Tanner said there is a real human cost to waiting to get necessary mental health care for people in need.

“I know of three incidences that people that I have put in the Pavilion and have ordered to go to Wichita Falls, did not ever get to go there, and they committed suicide,” she said. “And that feels like it’s on me, even though I know it’s really not. But it hurts me to know that they could’ve gotten the help and that they couldn’t get it, because there was no bed. So maybe this hospital will alleviate some of that and will have the facility for them to go and stay long term.”

While the Potter County Sheriff’s Office has LPC’s available to help meet mental healthcare needs, Sheriff Thomas said keeping up with medication is another issue.

“We’re not equipped to handle it. We can put them in a single cell or a violent cell, but it’s the meds and the treatment that they need that we just can’t provide here,” said Thomas. “We don’t have the funding to do that.”

Thomas also said the cost increases for inmates with mental health needs.

“It’s, it’s $71.91 per day for just a regular inmate coming in. That goes up to $77 per day with mental health,” he said. “If they’re in for mental health, and they’re seeing a doctor, while they’re here, that’s $94.70 per day. If they’re here, and they’re there waiting on the list to go to the state hospital because they’re on some kind of meds, the care is a little different. We go up to $111.40 per day that we’re paying out for that inmate to be here.”

Thomas said having a state hospital would reduce the burden on taxpayers subsidizing the cost of these inmates. Plus, he says they would receive the care they need.

“They don’t need short-term care of being in county jail. They need long-term care in a state hospital where they can either get well or maybe they can’t get well, you know, but that’s above our care here that we can do here.”