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Florida Mental Illness Programs Leave Most Patients Untreated, House Panel Hears


Florida's system for the mentally ill is an underfunded shambles that leaves most people untreated and settles for locking up many of the rest.

Officials and experts told a House committee in Tallahassee on Thursday that system funding levels, in real terms, are below what they were in the 1980s and that the crisis is "deepening."

The House Healthy Families Committee took the disquieting  testimony against the background of the Newtown school shootings and the attention it placed on the country's limited ability to notice and treat mentally unbalanced people before they hurt themselves or others.

During the committee hearing, reported by the Palm Beach Post's Dara Kam, members were told that Florida's mental health funding per capita ranks 49th in the country and that too much of that limited money is spent on hospitalization.

“We’re acute crisis now. It’s urgent care. And people don’t get better in a system like that,” Community Mental Health President Bob 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  00000173-d92f-dc06-a17f-ddbf0ed90000Wansley 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.”

There's $722 million  in this year's state budget to treat more than 300,000 people with mental illnesses. Even so, the experts told the House committee, about two-thirds of Floridians who need treatment never get it. Committee members said later there needs to be more emphasis on preventive services and identifying children who need treatment.

But they did hear of a measure of hope on the horizon: Under the Affordable Care Act, much of the mental health expenses now borne by the state would be transferred to Medicaid, and that would free up the money for those now-underfunded services.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, says the  Newtown school massacre showed what can happen when mental health programs are insufficient.