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Legislative coalition urges leaders to find money for mental health programs

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A bipartisan coalition of House members and senators endorsed Gov. Rick Scott’s request to increase mental health funding by $25 million, but said even more money is needed to move Florida out of the basement in funding for treatment.

“At the end of the day, we’re 49th (in funding among the states), which means we’ve neglected this for far too long,” Sen. Rene Garcia said.

“This has to be a priority,” he said. “It’s costing us way too much money by not funding the system. It’s a matter of educating legislators, educating the leadership, and putting the pressure on to ensure that we get that money.”

“This is the biggest crisis in this country,” Rep. Kathleen Peters said.

“Mental illness and addiction are consuming resources out of every system in government at every level in government,” she said.

“It is the No. 1 reason that health care costs are rising. It is the No. 1 thing consuming all of the resources of our court system, our jail and prison systems, of our law enforcement system. It is the No. 1 reason children are taken away from their families and put into DCF.”

Also attending the news conference were Republican House member Mike Miller and Democrats Carlos Smith and Katie Edwards. Republican Victor Torres was there, too.

Last year, the Legislature pumped an additional $63 million into mental health services, Peters said. It also passed SB 12, which coordinated involuntary commitment programs for people with mental and addiction problems, and required counties to coordinate services by local agencies.

She hopes to find money to attract a substantial federal match for services, she said.

“It’s going to take money. It’s going to take effort. It’s going to take a lot of the conversations we’re going to have on the floor during the next 58 days,” Miller said.

Alisa LaPolt, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Tallahassee office, held up a thick ring binder containing three months’ phone transcripts and emails from people worried about family members.

“I fear that if he gets any worse, there is no option for me but to call 911, and it will be another situation of them taking him away,” one man told of his son. “This is heavy on my shoulders and my soul.”

“Multiply this by 12 months and 28 chapters (of her organization), and this is what we’re dealing with.”

Rick Marquis, attending the news conference with his wife, Kathleen, recounted their struggles to find help for their own son, diagnosed at 21 with schizophrenia. One specialist recommended the family move to another state that funds mental health treatment better.

“And, by the way, as a Floridian, I am not particularly proud of hearing that statement,” he said.

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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