Manatee Glens CEO charges Florida legislators to make mental health a priority

ejohnson@bradenton.comJanuary 24, 2013 

MANATEE -- Manatee Glens has reduced mental health and addiction treatment services, often turning away patients, because of statewide budget cuts.

The local hospital's funding decreased by $130,000 in 2012, and Gov. Rick Scott vetoed its request for $750,000 to supplement child services. Manatee County budgeted $545,000 in 2012-13 to allow the facility to continue receiving transfer patients from Manatee Memorial Hospital, Blake Medical Center and Lakewood Ranch Medical Center.

But those patients are turned away when beds are full, said Mary Ruiz, CEO and president of Manatee Glens.

"That's a regular occurrence," Ruiz said. "I get 40 to 60 calls a week for people who need medication but can't afford it."

To hire more staff, expand services and increase beds to adequately serve Manatee County, Ruiz said the facility's $27 million annual budget would need to triple.

In 2012, Manatee Glens treated 15,000 people, compared to 12,000 in 2009. In that time, Ruiz said, service to children needing inpatient treatment has doubled, with the overall needs for detox and psychiatric services increasing substantially.

"All this started with the economic downturn," Ruiz said. "People lost jobs or health insurance, were dealing with foreclosures and business losses. The prescription pain pill epidemic started raging in our community. We're countercyclical: When times aren't good, we're busy."

Ruiz hopes dialogue sparked by the recent mass shootings will put mental health funding at the forefront of Florida's budget discussions.

"We're in a dire situation," Ruiz said. "I think each year the legislators look at their priorities and decide, 'Well, it's not so bad for mental health.' But it is past that. It is desperate."

Following the December slayings in Newtown, Conn., U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, mailed a letter to President Barack Obama stating that the shooters at Sandy Hook and Virginia Tech suffered mental health issues.

"These tragic events underscore the need to refocus attention on screening and treating mentally ill people who may now be falling through the cracks," Buchanan wrote. "I fully recognize and support the need to reduce federal spending as we work to shrink our massive debt. But it is also clear that failing to adequately address the issue of mental illness places a heavy toll on social services, our prison system and our communities."

Ruiz is concerned that the more controversial issues of violent media and gun control will take the spotlight.

"I think those are distractions," she said. "This is a medical disorder we're talking about. We don't know exactly why people get mental illnesses, but we do know if we screen for it and we treat it, it doesn't have to come to acts of violence. It's a medical issue for me, not a social issue."

Ruiz said it is time for adequate mental health care to become a priority to prevent incidents like the Columbine or Sandy Hook school shootings.

"We admitted a 16-year-old to our crisis center a few years ago with a shotgun and a plan to shoot up Lakewood Ranch High School," Ruiz said. "Don't think for a minute that Sandy Hook couldn't happen here in Manatee County. It didn't happen because the sheriff found out about it first and the child got care because he was sick. He was mentally ill."

It is up to Florida legislators to determine how much, if any, money is added to mental health funding, but Ruiz said the revenue resources should be stable.

Said Ruiz: "The message needs to be loud and clear that mental health and addiction treatment should be funded, and we pay you (legislators) to figure out where it should come from."

Elizabeth Johnson, Herald crime reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHcrime.

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