State Politics

State leaders look to pass mental health reform — in 2016

As they reviewed legislative issues affecting children, lawmakers and state agency heads said this week they will push again in 2016 for two key bills that died in the abrupt end to this spring’s regular session.

An overhaul of the state’s mental-health system and an upgrade of early-learning programs topped a list of legislative priorities atWednesday’s meeting of the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet in Stuart.

“It didn’t get done, but we’re going to be back, because we think the issues haven’t gone away,” Department of Children and Families Secretary Mike Carroll said of the mental-health reform bill (SB 7068).

Carroll and Rep. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who represents the House on the Children and Youth Cabinet, pushed hard this year for the reform measure. They contend that providing mental-health and substance-abuse treatment to parents helps to prevent child abuse.

“This bill did not focus specifically on children, although in the child-welfare system it became very evident that … the principle drivers in child fatalities are mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence,” said Harrell, the bill’s House sponsor. “And domestic violence, to a large degree, is the result of mental-health and substance-abuse issues.”

The failed legislation would have changed the way treatment for mental illness and substance abuse is delivered. It would have required more coordinated care, especially for Floridians who use the system most. It also would have coordinated those services with primary health care, changed the bidding process for providers and looked for more federal Medicaid funding.

But the bill died April 29, the day after the House adjourned and went home three days early amid a budget impasse with the Senate.

The bill died after the House removed a provision from the Senate bill that would have merged what are known as the “Baker Act” and the “Marchman Act” --- a provision in the Senate bill “dear to (the) heart” of Senate sponsor Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah.

The Baker Act allows for involuntary examination or commitment if people are likely to have mental illnesses that pose harm to themselves or to others. The process must be initiated by judges, law enforcement officers, physicians or mental-health professionals. The Marchman Act allows for the involuntary commitment of Floridians undergoing substance-abuse crises.

Garcia asked senators to reject the House amendment that removed the merger. Senators went along with Garcia’s request. But the bill died because it could not go back to the House for another vote.

“Sen. Garcia thought (the proposed merger) was an essential element,” Harrell told the Children and Youth Cabinet on Wednesday.

Nonetheless, she and Carroll were upbeat about getting the legislation passed in 2016.

“It came together so quickly,” Carroll said. “We’re going to start at a much different place next year, because a lot of the legwork has been done, and so we hope to get something really meaningful out of the next legislative session.”

Children and Youth Cabinet members also lamented the failure of a bill (HB 7017) that would have raised health, safety and education standards for providers of early education programs.

Spearheaded by House Education Chairwoman Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake, the bill would have required child-care workers to be at least 18 years old and to have high-school diplomas to supervise children.

It also would have required providers who are cited for serious violations to notify parents and conspicuously post the citations on the premises. And it would have required child-care providers to conduct employment-history checks before employing staff and to be trained in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

David Lawrence, chairman of the Children’s Movement of Florida, said the bill was “a significant casualty of what happened in the Legislature.”

Tallahassee attorney Steve Uhlfelder suggested that the Children and Youth Cabinet actively push the bill when it comes up again. If O’Toole brings the measure back in 2016, it will be her third attempt. A similar bill died in the waning hours of the 2014 legislative session.

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