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Legislators say now is the time to improve state’s mental health and substance abuse services

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A bipartisan group of House and Senate members on Tuesday announced their support of a 21-page bill that would better fund community mental health services and, among other things, establish a data collection system populated with information about individuals receiving publicly funded substance abuse and mental health disorders.

In kicking off the press conference on HB 1005, veteran state Sen. Nancy Detert predicted that the state would pass legislation this year increasing funding for mental health and substance abuse services.

“It is definitely one of the top three issues we all will be working on in various ways,” Detert said of herself and the members gathered for the press conference. “You will see something come out of this Legislature at the end of this session to help put more money into mental health issues and deal with the problems that have touched almost every aspect of Floridians’ lives.”

HB 1005 also creates a $450,000 loan forgiveness program for personnel who work at community behavioral health centers and substance abuse treatment programs in hopes of lowering staff turnover at the centers. The program would provide up to $3,000 annually for up to four years for those who pursue a postsecondary degree program in counseling, psychology, or social work.

The Legislature would appropriate $450,000 annually for the program beginning the 2015-16 state fiscal year through the 2020-21 fiscal year. The program would be administered by the Department of Children and Families.

There are two related Senate bills–SB 1338 and SB 1462–but they differ from the House measure. Additionally, a proposed committee bill will be advanced by the Children, Families & Seniors Subcommittee.

A  group of legislators came out to support the bill, from Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services Chairman state Sen. Rene Garcia to state Sen. Nancy Detert in the Senate and in the House state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasalinda as well as state Rep. Gayle Harrell and state Rep. Kathleen Peters, who are the chair and vice chair, respectively, of the House  Children, Families & Seniors Subcommittee.

In all, HB 1005 establishes a 10-part plan to improve the mental health and substance abuse delivery system. As part of that plan the bill would expand the Crisis Intervention Team Program that would allow for all law enforcement throughout the state to engage patrol deputies, dispatch officers, bailiffs, student resource officers, jail and prison officers and other first line of defense personnel to have skill and resources to recognize the difference between a mental health episode and a criminal offense.

The bill also increases funding for community mental health services by $9 million in recurring general revenue. Of that, $500,000 is directed to create a Center for Excellence for Criminal Justice, Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute at the University of South Florida. The center is charged with promoting and implementing evidence-based practices through education, training technical assistance, strategic planning, data analysis and evaluation of programs funded with Criminal Justice, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse Reinvestment Grant Program dollars.

Sen. Garcia said that for too long the Florida Legislature has neglected the state’s  mental health and substance issues.

“The reason that happens is there is such a huge stigma associated with mental health and substance abuse and we try to keep it hidden,” Garcia said, adding that everyone knows someone who has been impacted by mental health and substance abuse issues. “That’s why it’s incumbent upon this Legislature to act today.”

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