Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill overhauling the state’s disjointed mental health care system.
The new law wisely focuses sharply on mental health and substance-abuse treatment. It requires communities to link health professionals, law enforcement, courts, prisons and jails, juvenile justice agencies and local charities to establish local plans that address personal issues before more severe problems arise.
This will help reduce the burden on the state’s six mental health hospitals, which are suffering from shortages in staffing and resources.
The new law also requires Florida’s nonprofit managing entities that oversee state contracts in the state’s seven regions to collaborate with counties, including law enforcement and other government departments, in the creation of a new mental health evaluation system. That system would determine the appropriate services for those in need, steering individuals away from expensive hospital emergency rooms unsuited for psychiatric care.
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The state’s mental health care system deteriorated ever since the Florida Department of Children & Families began slashing budgets for six primary mental health hospitals in 2009. Those misguided cuts reached $100 million since then with staff reductions in the hundreds.
The funding damage to the state’s entire mental health services budget since Gov. Rick Scott took office reflects the Legislature’s and the governor’s deep misunderstanding and disregard of the societal and personal value of treatment. The budget for services plunged from $737 million to $352 million under Scott. Florida ranks as the second worst state for funding mental health at an abysmal $37 per person.
The resulting impact hit communities hard as they struggled to meet rising needs with meager resources. Homelessness and child abuse are but two issues where behavioral treatment is vital.
Costs are also borne by the justice system as jails and prisons, ill equipped at providing treatment, become home to more and more prisoners suffering from mental health issues. The state Department of Corrections estimates as many as 40,000 inmates are mentally ill. The new law gives the courts additional alternatives to divert the mentally ill into treatment instead of incarceration.
Florida lawmakers finally reversed course this year and allocated $16 million for mental hospitals and another $42 million to boost community programs that address mental health.
But compared with the massive cuts over the past six years, these figures fall far short of major repairs to the system. But it’s a start.
Mental health roared into the nation’s consciousness in the wake of mass shootings and other gun violence linked to psychiatric issues. In January, President Obama issued executive orders to bolster access to mental healthcare with a commitment of $500 million. The U.S. Senate and House have also taken up the cause and are working on mental health legislation, though prospects are dim because of congressional gridlock.
Florida is not alone in the precipitous dive in mental health funding. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, states across the country slashed allocations during the recession by some $4 billion. Just as Florida is taking a small step toward reversing that steep fall, Mr. Obama’s half billion dollar mark should be an initial move.
The original version of this editorial appeared in the Bradenton Herald.