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A Pennington County inmate walks down the hall of the psychiatric exam area in February 2014. 

So, it’s come down to this.

Three of the five Pennington County commissioners opposed a request to seek a grant to document the area’s glaring lack of mental health resources and ways to address it.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? It would be a freebie for the county and could help it better understand a critical need. But, apparently, nothing is simple when it comes to health care in South Dakota.

In rejecting the request made by the director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department, Ron Buskerud, George Ferebee and Mark DiSanto essentially said they don't want to know about the scope of the problem or they might have to address it.

They believe it is not the county’s responsibility to provide mental health care even though that is exactly what is happening at the county jail where people suffering from mental illnesses are being held while awaiting an evaluation at the state mental hospital in Yankton or a sentencing in a courtroom.

While jail employees are doing an admirable job of taking on a task that was thrust upon them, it is an archaic way to treat complicated problems. The jail is not a hospital and the staff is not comprised of medical personnel. It also costs taxpayers plenty of money to house the mentally ill while they languish in a legal system not designed for them.

It’s not that the commissioners don’t have a point, however. They are correct when they say state government should be addressing what all agree is a serious problem in South Dakota. It’s true that state lawmakers have done practically nothing in recent years to improve mental health care.

So, this is what it has come down to: residents stuck with a local and state government that would rather do nothing or point fingers than address a problem that can strike anyone and has the power to take lives as is evident in the record number of suicides reported in 2017 in the state.

But, nonetheless, Buskerud, Ferebee and DiSanto did county residents no favors on Tuesday.

This was not a request for county money; it was a request to submit a proposal to the Helmsley Charitable Trust, which had invited the county to make the request in the first place. If approved, the foundation would have done an assessment of the behavioral health system and recommendations to improve it.

That’s it. The commission would not have been obligated to take any action after the assessment. It would be valuable information though that could be put to good use.

The county commission, for example, could take the data and use it to lobby state lawmakers and the next governor to improve mental health care in South Dakota. The state often says it lacks data to address health care problems. This would be an answer to that tired response.

Maybe the county will get another chance, however. Ferebee and Buskerud are leaving the commission at the end of the year. If the county is again asked to apply for a Helmsley grant, their replacements could join Deb Hadcock and Lloyd LaCroix to vote for a study that just might open the eyes of a Legislature that too often looks the other way when it comes to mental health care in this state.

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