'Ground-breaking' health care report

02/04/08 Mitch E. Perry
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Florida’s problems dealing with the mentally ill hit a low in November 2006 when a Judge threatened to jail the head of the state Department of Children & Families if the agency could not explain why it consistently has failed to get mentally ill jail inmates into psychiatric treatment. That led to a report from the Florida Supreme Court last year that said the needs of people in the justice system who have mental disorders are not being met by the state.

On Saturday, nearly 100 members of mental health organizations from the Tampa bay area gathered at Higgans Hall in Tampa to hear from officials about the report, and how they can get politically active to force state lawmakers to begin to adequately fund the system.

Scott Barnett is executive director of Mental Health America of Greater Tampa Bay, the organization that spearheaded the meeting.

The Florida Supreme Court report released last November calls for legislators to continue funding of last year’s Criminal Justice, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Reinvestment Act, and allot $20-million from the state’s general revenue budget to restructure the state’s mental health care system.
But as Barnett alluded, getting that funding in a tight budget year will not be easy.

Robert Constantine of the Florida Mental Health Institute was one of the lead authors of the Supreme Court report, called “Transforming Florida’s Mental Health System.”

Of the six officials spent who spoke on Saturday, nearly all recited anecdotes describing how bad the situation with the mentally ill has gotten in Florida.

Along with detailing the problems in the state, all well known to the various local social service providers in the audience, they discussed the need to lobby state lawmakers to come up with the necessary funds.

Dennis Ross, the recently retired president and CEO of the Crises Center of Tampa Bay, said the various groups need come together to get action. He cited the powerful success of the liberal internet group MoveOn.Org as an example to aspire to.

Michele Saunders is the executive director of Florida Partners in Crises, a statewide board whose members are pushing for better funding of mental health programs. The group includes judges, sherriff’s deputies, public defenders as well as mental health professionals.

Saunders provided the audience with a packet that included a summary of the Supreme Court’s report and a listing of relevant state lawmakers to contact.

Anger was actually a topic that many of the speakers touched on, at the way that the U.S. and Florida specifically treats the mentally ill.

David Miller, the state chairman of the board of the Florida Substance Abuse and Mental Health Corp., formed by the governor and Florida Legislature, said it was important in lobbying Tallahassee to be on the same page and with realistic goals.

Along with emphasizing that people with serious mental illness need treatment, no jail, several officials expressed anger at how Florida and the nation, still don’t treat the mentally ill with the seriousness that the problem merits.

Brian Keefe is director of resident training for the USF Department of Psychiatry and Resident Training and director of Psychiatry Services at Tampa General Hospital. He said voting for funding the mentally ill is a test for all of the state’s lawmakers.

Advocates say that each year, 125,000 mentally ill people are arrested and booked into state jails – most are charged with minor misdemeanors that are the result of their mental illness.

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