As Valley Mental Health prepares to meet funding shortfalls by eliminating positions and treatment beds, the director said he hopes it won't take a tragedy to make treatment of the mentally ill a priority in Utah.

David Dangerfield said eight staff positions will be eliminated by attrition and three indigent inpatient psychiatric beds will be closed immediately.Thursday, Dangerfield told the Deseret News that the staff reductions could impact 1,600 people who need public mental-health services, although no one currently in treatment will be turned away. Closure of the three beds will mean about 44 people who need inpatient services won't get it.

Valley Mental Health already has waiting lists. Patients wait up to six weeks to see a doctor, and acutely mentally ill people are forced on waiting lists for hospital admissions.

"We have six or seven people a day who are asking for admission and deserve to be admitted. It's not a question of the beds all being full. But the beds that we can afford are full," Dangerfield said.

A hiring freeze is in place, and Dangerfield said his staff will evaluate positions and possibly shift existing staff to fill the most crucial vacant positions. He hopes those cuts, along with some administrative cost reductions, will save the underfunded mental health system $1 million.

"We're saving wherever we can," Dangerfield said. "We're making some cuts in staff health benefits, for instance. But you can only cut back so far. You can't save that much in paper clips.

"At some point, the state has to make the determination that human services have a little higher priority than they've had in the past. Looking at other states, we've seen that it has taken a real tragedy (like the massacre at a fast-food restaurant in California) or a lawsuit to get the services needed. We don't want that to happen here."

The state hospital is full, and other inpatient hospital beds cost 38 percent more this year than last. But state funding has remained flat, and Medicare has cut its reimbursement rates for mental-health services.

Salt Lake County has increased its funding for the services and exceeds the formula required by the state, Dangerfield said, but the public mental-health system is in trouble. "Unhappily, priorities don't change until there is a human outcry or people simply say `no more.' "