MENTAL HEALTH CARE: Emerges as Key Issue in California
Mental health care is shaping up to be a significant issue in California politics this year, as key legislators "vow to seek major spending increases" and look to overhaul the state system, the Los Angeles Times reports. While Gov. Gray Davis (D) has proposed modest budget increases in metal health spending, state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) -- the Capitol's "most powerful legislator" -- has "adopted" the issue and pledges to seek "sharp funding increases" in the coming appropriations battle. Burton, joined by allies in the Assembly, has established a committee on the mental health system with the goal of issuing a detailed report before budget talks. "This issue has moved to the forefront," Burton said. He added, "I do not believe the administration is going to want to find itself behind the curve." According to federal statistics, California has some 630,000 severely mentally ill adults. The state spends $2.5 billion annually on mental health services, reaching only half of those in need. Health care professionals estimate that as many as 20,000 homeless people suffer from major mental illness, such as schizophrenia, major depression and other disabling conditions. Many of the homeless, however, only receive treatment once they are jailed; some 15% of the jail and prison inmates in the state are severely mentally ill, costing the state more than $1 billion per year. "It is not a sexy issue designed to get votes," state Rep. Scott Baugh (R-Huntington) said, adding, "It's an issue designed to help the truly needy. ... There will be a bipartisan solution." Given that the state "is bulging with billions more than budget experts had anticipated," lawmakers see this year as ripe for reform. "This has been the most focus and most interest in all the time I can remember," said California Mental Health Director Stephen Mayberg. One of the most "far-reaching" bills under consideration is state Rep. Helen Thomson's (D-Davis) AB 1800, which would allow -- in extreme circumstances -- state authorities to treat severely mentally ill patients against their will. Patients' rights activist Sally Zinman said of the proposal, "It's a violation of the rights of a whole group of people." Other proposed legislation includes improving oversight of people housed in private asylums; providing treatment for juveniles who commit crimes, but are diagnosed as mentally ill; improving police handling of the mentally ill; and establishing mental health courts where judges, with the help of therapists, could order various treatments instead of incarceration (Morain, 3/2).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.