A restructuring meant to force different parts of Florida’s mental health system to work together is now law.
Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed SB 12, which requires communities — health professionals, police, courts, jails and local charities — to work together to develop a local plan for mental health and substance abuse treatment.
The goal is to create “no wrong door,” the legislation’s sponsors said, so that no matter how someone enters the system, they get immediate access to the right kind of care, as well as follow-up services in the future.
But in the long run, supporters’ hopes are even higher.
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“We’ll have an absolute infrastructure that will work for every door,” Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, said in an interview with the Herald/Times last month. “And we won’t be using our jails and our prisons as mental hospitals.”
As many as 40,000 of the state’s mentally ill are currently in prison, according to Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones.
Many of the most serious — and most expensive — cases are in the state’s mental hospitals. Years of budget cuts, abuse and neglect were the subject of an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune that brought them into the spotlight.
“Hopefully, what it will do is allow people to get services earlier on,” said Linda McKinnon, president and CEO of the Central Florida Behavioral Health network and a 30-year veteran of mental health treatment. “The goal is for the front door to be much earlier than the equivalent of having a massive heart attack.”
But to reduce strain on the mental hospitals, jails and prisons requires local groups like McKinnon’s to work even more closely with sheriffs, judges and other key players in their communities. That’s where the new law signed Friday comes in.
Each county is now tasked with creating a plan to ensure everyone has access to care. That means creating locations across the state to determine what kind of services people need — a sort of mental health emergency room to serve those in crisis, whether they recognize it themselves, are involuntarily committed under the Baker or Marchman acts, or a police officer decides it’s best to bring them there instead of jail.
As a model, lawmakers have looked to Orange County, where law enforcement officers take people they believe to be experiencing a mental health crisis to a “central receiving center” instead of jail.
Alongside other changes passed this year that give courts additional options for diverting people with mentally illness or substance abuse disorders and give psychiatric nurses more authority, advocates say this is the most dramatic shift in mental health policy since the Baker Act was passed 45 years ago.
Contact Michael Auslen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MichaelAuslen.