Congress must support aid for mentally ill

One in four. That’s the number of Americans who will experience mental illness at some point in their lifetime. Yet, for decades, funding for mental-health treatment has steadily declined. It’s time to change that, and legislation set to be reintroduced in Congress would do so.

In my 22 years in the mental-health field, I’ve seen devastating cuts in mental-health budgets. Nationally, public mental-health programs were cut by $4.35 billion from 2009 to 2012, and fewer than half of Americans living with mental illness are getting any treatment at all.

Here in Florida, the situation is just as grim as it is in the rest of the nation. Government funded mental-health centers are the bedrock of our nation’s mental healthcare system. Repeated funding cuts undermine our ability to provide the help so many desperately need.

If enacted, the Excellence in Mental Health Act would go a long way toward restoring Medicaid funding for community mental-health centers nationwide, including our behavioral health safety-net programs and services provided at Jackson Behavioral Health Hospital and Jackson North Community Mental Health Center, both part of Jackson Health System.

The programs provide lifelines for people struggling with serious anxiety, acute episodes of depression, the debilitating chronic symptoms of schizophrenia and those contemplating suicide. In May 2013, a study published in Health Affairs by Katharine Levit and colleagues, concluded that “federal Medicaid served as a critical safety net for people with behavioral health treatment needs during the recession.”

The Excellence Act would ensure that community behavioral-health centers cover a broad range of mental-health and addiction services: 24-hour crisis care, increased integration of physical and behavioral health needs and expanded support for the often beleaguered families of people with mental-health issues. The act would provide care for as many as 1.5 million Americans living with mental illness, including an estimated 200,000 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with behavioral-health needs.

In the wake of recent tragedies, polls find that eight in 10 Americans support spending more money on mental-health programs. Sadly, that support does not translate into certain passage of the Excellence in Mental Health Act. The legislation was to be considered as part of the gun-control package debated in Congress earlier this year. Ultimately, when the gun legislation was defeated, the mental-health legislation was set aside. Fortunately, the bipartisan sponsors of the bill promise to bring it up again later this year.

While lawmakers in Congress recognize the need to make quality mental healthcare more available, during this time of tight budgets, some are reluctant to support additional federal spending. Such concern is understandable. But Republican sponsors in the Senate include Roy Blunt of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida — hardly tax-and-spend liberals. They recognize, as do so many Americans, that we must get help to those facing mental illness. Saying “yes” to increased mental-health services is the right thing to do.

R. John Repique is vice-president/chief administrative officer for Behavioral Health Services and chief nursing officer for Behavioral Health and Correctional Health Services at Jackson Health System.

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