Florida Legislature now rethinking mental health spending

In light of the tragic shootings in Connecticut and Colorado, Florida legislators are taking a hard look at the state’s mental health system, which ranks 49th among states and the District of Columbia when it comes to funding.

“That’s $39 per person per year,” said Bob Sharpe, president and CEO of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health, one of 10 panelists addressing the House Healthy Families Subcommittee Thursday as an “ongoing conversation” to address the system’s woes. That figure, experts said, was lower than per capita funding for mental health in the 1950s.

The violence at Sandy Hook Elementary School is just one reason for action, said the subcommittee’s chair, state Rep. Gayle Harrell, R.-Stuart. “Any time you have a tragedy it certainly focuses public attention on an issue,” Harrell said. “We want to make sure that we don’t just do this however when there’s a tragedy.”

Legislators need to look at the continuum of care “from prevention to identification to intervention to treatment,” Harrell said, if any improvements can occur in a system where issues range from school safety to finding places for mentally impaired nursing home patients.

The lack of funding for prevention in the community, particularly in schools, has been a key issue both at Thursday’s subcommittee meeting and at a Senate meeting Wednesday chaired by Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood.

That’s because the bulk of the state’s $723 million mental health budget is used for treatment, said Rob Siedlecki, assistant secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

Harrell’s committee asked each panelist to come up with policy rather than funding solutions for mental health issues in the state.

“If we can set up a system in place and look at our system and really change it so that it is much more responsive to prevention, to the needs of the community then you can avoid some of those tragedies perhaps,” Harrell said. “When a tragedy fades and the memory of it fades, you don’t want to let this issue fade. “