Granted, it’s not the massive overhaul promised at the start of Florida’s legislative session and, unfortunately, lawmakers remain stingy with the funding. However, advocates for mentally ill Floridians say that a handful of significant bills has sailed through both chambers.
Most important, the legislation passed better regulates the way mentally ill residents are treated. That’s the assessment from Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman, who has carried on a years-long crusade to help mentally ill people who enter the local judicial system.
“In the seven years I've been attending the legislative session, I have never seen so many bills in favor of the mentally ill pass so easily,” Mr. Leifman told the Editorial Board in Tallahassee last week. That’s welcome news.
He was joined in praising lawmakers by Miami-Dade Commissioner Sally Heyman, who also visited Tallahassee during Dade Days to support bills that change how mentally ill residents are treated by law enforcement, doctors, child-welfare workers and courts.
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So why the sudden, and overdue, interest in mental-health issues? Ms. Heyman has a theory.
“Social causes have their year. We've had the year of the child; we’ve had the year of the elderly. I think this is the year of the mentally ill," she said. We hope she’s right because Florida needs to up its game and help residents who, so far, have been unable to access consistent care.
People whose illness goes untreated are more likely to be addicted to narcotics, have young children taken from them and put into the state’s child-welfare system or languish in jail — all at taxpayers’ expense. Sometimes, they can’t hold a job and draw unemployment checks. When some have psychotic episodes, they land in prison, which, unfortunately, has become the state’s mental facility — and inappropriately so.
More than anywhere in Florida, the cost of mental-health services in Miami-Dade is staggering — and the judicial system is front and center. In county jails, some 1,400 inmates take psychiatric drugs, at a cost to taxpayers of $80 million a year. Still, Florida ranks 49th in per-capita spending on mental health, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. The state needs to do more, much more.
This year, lawmakers said they were moved by highly publicized tragedies — including a mentally ill inmate in South Florida who was left to die when guards locked him in a scalding shower as punishment. Legislators proposed more than 20 bills that together constitute the most dramatic changes to the state’s mental-health delivery system in decades.
The proposals coordinate mental-health and substance-abuse services; review the Baker Act law; and require that a person deemed mentally ill in one county court is recognized as such in other counties.
Still, how to fund care and treatment is also at issue. One major component remains undecided: Medicaid expansion. With it would come $40 million more in federal funds to cover mental-health services for uninsured Floridians.
At least in Miami-Dade, mentally ill residents will soon benefit from a trailblazing treatment facility that could spare them from the county jail’s psychiatric ward. Soon they will be channeled to a new Mental Health Diversion Facility.
Lawmakers have made some strides, but they need to face up to the fact that funding is a critical factor in really making a difference.