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MONDAY SEPTEMBER 23, the first day of committee meetings in Tallahassee!
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Tell them: “There is still time to accept our federal dollars to expand access to healthcare to 1.2 million Floridians and create over 100,000 jobs! Do the right thing and expand healthcare now!”
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NAMI/PBC Executive Director
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Two thirds of mentally ill in Florida go untreated
By Dara Kam
Palm Beach Post Capital Bureau
Motivated by the massacre of 20 elementary school children in Newtown, Conn., Florida lawmakers are grappling with shortcomings in how the state treats the mentally ill in the hope of averting similar disasters.
What state officials, providers and advocates told a House committee on Thursday was grim.
Nearly two-thirds of the state’s mentally ill go untreated. The lifespan of those with mental illnesses is 25 years shorter than those without psychiatric problems. And, adjusted for inflation and population, the state spends less now on mental health services than it did three decades ago.
The state is “facing a deepening crisis in our publicly-financed mental health system,” Florida Council for Community Mental Health President Bob Sharpe told the House Healthy Families Committee before unleashing those statistics.
Florida ranks 49th nationally in per capita mental health funding, he said, and disproportionately spends those funds on hospitalization.
“We’re acute crisis now. It’s urgent care. And people don’t get better in a system like that,” Sharpe, a former state Medicaid director, said later.
Many of those with mental illnesses end up behind bars, first as youths and then as adults, further driving up costs to taxpayers and the community. One key to preventing violent behavior and chronic mental health problems is early screening, the panelists stressed.
Research shows that there are “seven years of warning before a child becomes a serious violent offender,” Florida Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters said. “So there are signs and signals being sent out to a lot of people who could act as first responders,” she said. “We feel like we are in a race to catch children before they are coming into the system.”
The Department of Children and Families will spend about $722 million this year in state and federal funds treating more than 300,000 Floridians with mental illnesses, nearly one-third of them children, DCF Deputy Secretary Rob Seidlecki said. Those costs do not include prevention, he said. Mentally ill individuals have trouble finding housing, jobs, health care and mental health treatment and face waiting lists for services, he said.
Sharpe said an expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, something Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders have not agreed to, would move 200,000 mentally ill individuals now treated by DCF into Medicaid, freeing up millions of dollars that could be spent on community-based treatment and preventive services.
“With those dollars, we can make a big change here in our mental health system. We need to rethink it. Just don’t assume that the current system is the one we want,” Sharpe said.
Committee Chairwoman Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, said the state needs to do something to intervene with children before it’s too late.
“What really came out of this is that there needs to be better identification and coordination of services. Our schools need to be very much a part of our mental health system. And we need to be able to identify especially children early,” she said.
The committee also wants to explore whether to expand the “Baker Act,” an involuntary commitment up to 72 hours for individuals who appear to be mentally ill, are a danger to themselves or others and refuse to undergo an evaluation or are unable to understand the need for an exam. Many times those individuals are released into the community without any follow-up services. Sharpe told the committee of one man who was involuntarily committed 100 times in a year, meaning that he was hospitalized for nearly the entire year.
Harrell said she wants to look into what can be done to keep those individuals longer and ensure that there are services available when they are released. “That needs to be addressed,” she said.
She plans to take up the issue when the Children’s Cabinet meets in Orlando next week. “When a tragedy fades, and the memory of it fades, you don’t want to let the issue fade,” she said, referring to the Sandy Hook shootings.
But Senate President Don Gaetz said he has to be convinced that spending more will achieve better outcomes. “I would hope that people who are involved in the budget process don’t take inappropriate and cynical advantage of these tragedies solely to get budget increases,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said.
And he said he does not want school screenings used as a way for teachers to dump unruly students, something he said he encountered as a former Okaloosa County school superintendent.
But House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said the Connecticut shootings were a wake-up call for lawmakers. “There’s no question that the tragedy in Newtown brought to light the mental health challenges that we’re facing as a country and what’s capable of happening if it’s not dealt with,” he said.
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