Editorials

Florida adopts a better way to treat the mentally ill, addicts

TNS

How Florida treats mentally ill people and those trapped in substance abuse will undergo a historic overhaul thanks to laws that the state Legislature passed this year, given a tremendous push by Miami-Dade’s delegation.

“I would call this the most substantive changes to the way we treat those suffering with mental illness and substance abuse since the Baker Act passed 45 years ago,” Miami-Dade Associate Judge Steve Leifman, a long-time champion of this critical issue, told the Editorial Board.

In a year when the Legislature passed, and Gov. Rick Scott signed, many laws with a heart, they should also be praised for a trio that will now require and ensure a united front, from the criminal-justice system, law enforcement, health professionals and other stake holders, to get drugs users and mentally ill individuals appropriate treatment. For too long, Florida’s jails and prisons have been the “treatment centers” of first resort, wholly inappropriate venues for rehabilitation.

Now, in a few months, those affected by mental and addiction issues who run afoul of the law because of their illness will encounter a more humane system. A new approach dubbed “no wrong door” will guide them into rehab or psychiatric treatment, instead of leaving them in limbo behind bars or put back on the street without social-service assistance — frequently the case with the homeless.

On the human level, this means their loved ones can be assured their family member is getting help, not being recycled over and over through the system — or in danger of a deadly confrontation with police.

State Sen. René Garcia, R-Hialeah, the health budget chairman for the past two years and co-sponsor of some of the changes, said the new laws’ goal is simple. “The impact is just really making it easier for families to navigate the system,” he told reporters.

Lawmakers like Mr. Garcia didn’t just give lip service to the overhaul. They made sure these new measures were funded.

This year’s state budget includes about $65 million in new spending for mental-health and substance-abuse programs. But keep in mind that a recent investigation by the Tampa Bay Times/Sarasota Herald-Tribune revealed that $100 million had been siphoned in recent years by the state from that same pot where this “so-called” new money is landing. “The money is really just being restored,” Judge Leifman said. Still, it’s a giant step in the right direction.

Overall, the state’s mental-health services and substance-abuse budget has increased from $943 million to $1.1 billion since Gov. Scott took office. It’s still not enough, but it is a far more-efficient use of taxpayers’ money in making these early, but significant, steps toward change.

The framework of the overhaul is based on three new laws that together address the issue from different angles: Besides the “no wrong door” programs, the Legislature also expanded options for courts to divert the mentally ill toward treatment and voted to let psychiatric nurses prescribe certain medications, addressing a nationwide shortage of psychiatrists.

And Florida’s underfunded state-run mental-health hospitals, severely understaffed, will see an addition of up to 160 workers, an important component in the system’s overhaul.

All these and other improvements can help rebuild the state’s broken mental-health system. Lawmakers should continue the good work they’ve started.

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