Florida, put a premium on mental health care as public safety issue

January 27, 2013 

The December slaughter of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., instigated a national dialog on mental health care after the public learned of the assailant's troubled history. In a broad strategy to contain mass shootings and random violence, earlier this month President Obama unveiled a sweeping package of gun control measures along with an expansion of mental health care services.

The nation -- and Florida in particular -- has long under valued mental health care. Some 30 states have cut mental health care spending over the past five years, eliminating thousands of beds for patients and slashing treatment options -- including for people caught up in the criminal justice system.

Hundreds of thousands of Florida residents are not receiving any treatment, the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reported last week. With the state's mental health care spending cut by more than 30 percent in the past six years, Florida now ranks an appalling 49th in the country in per capita funding for this critical medical service.

Chilling Manatee case

The issue hits home here in Manatee County. Manatee Glens, the county's premier provider of mental health care and addiction treatment services, lost $130,000 in state funding in 2012. Gov. Rick Scott also vetoed the hospital's request for $750,000 for children's services as part of his total rejection of $5.6 million in statewide spending.

As a result, Manatee Glens has been forced to turn away patients all too often even as the hospital's caseload soars by the thousands. Thankfully, Manatee County stepped in with a $545,000 allocation for 2012-2013 so Manatee Glens could continue taking patients from the county's three medical hospitals.

Manatee Glens President and CEO Mary Ruiz offered a chilling account of an episode that averted another Columbine or Sandy Hook tragedy here in an interview with Herald crime reporter Elizabeth Johnson last week:

"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. 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."

Time for Florida to act

Sandy Hook should be Florida's wake-up call. State leaders owe residents greater consideration of mental health as a matter of public safety. While mental health care providers and advocates cannot compete with high-powered lobbyists bearing big campaign contributions from well-heeled special interests, they deserve more earnest attention as part of the national dialog.

Rep. Vern Buchanan supports changes in the nation's mental health policies and spending even as he calls for budget cuts to reduce the federal deficit. In a letter to President Obama, the Longboat Key Republican stated: " ... failing to adequately address the issue of mental illness places a heavy toll on social services, our prison system and our communities."

That has been the Herald Editorial Board's position for years, and we welcome Buchanan's lobbying effort.

Many other fiscally conservative Republicans across the nation are shifting gears on this issue, including South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Her state slashed spending by almost 40 percent in four years -- the largest percentage decline in the country. Haley called those cuts "absolutely immoral" while pledging to beef up the state's mental health care system, the Associated Press reported last week.

Gov. Scott should take heed as he continues to consider accepting federal money under the Affordable Care Act for an expansion of Medicaid. Hundreds of thousands of uninsured Floridians would then gain access to mental health care, a boon to public safety.

New federal regulation

One of the key elements in the president's plan addresses the nation's historic minimization of mental health care among insurers. The administration intends to adopt final regulations governing a federal law that forces group health plans to include coverage of mental health care on par with medical and surgical benefits.

As the nation and other states bolster mental health care services, so must Florida quit giving short-shrift to this public safety issue. The governor and Legislature should be leading the charge.

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