Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Legislative lunacy


OUR OPINION: Lawmakers shouldn’t cut funds for front lines of mental healthcare

People with mental illnesses are finally being seen for what they are — not crazy, not lunatics, but sick. Untreated, some mentally ill people can have meltdowns and crises that put them and others in danger. Jail used to be the first place they were stashed. Without medication and treatment, this was a short-sighted, stopgap measure. It solved nothing.

But with the creation of crisis-stabilization units — CSUs — in communities around the state, there came a solution — inexpensive, effective and desperately needed.

So it was sheer lunacy that lawmakers in the Florida Senate took a shamelessly sneaky vote to undercut the CSUs, taking a big chunk of their funding and giving it to private hospitals that might be less prepared to deal with mental-health crises than a CSU. The money grab likely would have devastated a comprehensive system of mental healthcare that, in Miami-Dade alone, led to only six people in crisis being jailed in 2010. More than 1,800 were given care at CSUs, with long-term treatment available.

The bill, SB 7122, was postponed amid doubts and concerns. But when skeptical lawmakers left the room, those remaining snuck in a vote, and it passed. With $61 million going to CSUs, the privates, understandably, want a piece of it. And, up until recently, senators were willing to hand it over, no questions asked and, likely, no accountability demanded.

Fortunately, legislators seem to have come to their senses. A recent amendment has gutted the plan to cut CSU funding.

Floridians have been down this treacherous path before. For instance, funding for cheaper, safer care, where parents were able to look after their disabled children in the comfort and familiarity of their homes, was slashed. Instead, challenged children were wrenched from loving homes and placed in facilities where some were neglected or mistreated, sometimes fatally.

In the case of mentally ill Floridians, hospitals likely are not going to deal out unfathomable neglect or abuse. However, CSUs are specially designed to take care of people in crisis. Consider them emergency rooms for the mentally ill, which, in turn, take the pressure off of hospital ERs where they would have to take a number like everyone else. The police officers who took them to the ER likely would not have time to stay with them for hours and, as has happened in the past, the person in crisis might eventually be stabilized, but then discharged, possibly into homelessness.

• The state of Florida is 49th in per-capita funding for mental-health treatment. That’s next to dead last. It’s nothing to be proud of — or exacerbate.

• When compared with other large urban areas, Miami-Dade County has the largest percentage of people with mental illness in the country. There are approximately 177,000 adults and 55,000 children — 9 percent of the general population — diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression.

• The state would pay about $1,200 for each person in crisis taken to a hospital ER. The same patient costs only $291 at a CSU.

• With a funding cut, CSUs would probably have to cut staff. Their licensing is based on state-mandated staffing levels, so their very operation would be needlessly jeopardized.

The outcry from mental-health advocates — including judges and law-enforcement agencies — forced underhanded lawmakers to ratchet back their insanity. It should stay that way.

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