Sheriff Tom Howard is breathing a sigh of relief over recent changes in state law that impacted his department and all others statewide.

Before this, it had been the sole responsibility of sheriff’s departments in the mountain state to transport patients who had been placed under an involuntary commitment order.

They first had to be taken to a local hospital (WVU Medicine Wheeling or WVU Medicine Reynolds), then taken for a hearing, then transported to whatever hospital they were assigned to.

The hospitals included those in Princeton, Bluefield, Charleston, Huntington or Clarksburg.

And the pair of deputies doing the transport had to remain with the patient for every step of the process.

In some cases, it involved a 72-hour span of time. 

The county sheriff’s department was responsible for all transportation costs, including gas and even highway tolls. 

And deputies were dealing with a mental patient in the midst of a psychotic episode–something that was outside their realm of training or expertise.

“There have been three of these mental hygiene cases at the same time,” said Sheriff Howard. “So that’s six deputies tied up, leaving no one to patrol the roads or answer calls. We have had to ask the state police just to cover the road patrols, and they are very cooperative, but they’re short-staffed too.”

The new law will ease things in a number of ways, according to Sheriff Howard.

Now it is not the sole responsibility of the sheriff’s department to transport mental hygiene cases; it is now up to the primary law enforcement in the area.

The requirement to get the patient checked initially at an area hospital has been lifted; they have a hearing and can be transported directly to the hospital they’re assigned to. 

It also gives the sheriff the option to choose the mode of transportation, so instead of putting a mental patient in the back of a cruiser, they can be taken by ambulance or by a private transport business.

And now, the DHHR must reimburse the county for transportation costs, which Howard said have exceeded $150,000 a year since Hillcrest closed.

“The old law was bleeding the counties dry,” he said. “This new law will help a lot.”