What are Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe’s plans for Virginia’s mental health system?

November 25, 2013
Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Terry McAuliffe, gestures during an interview in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2013. McAuliffe faces Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the November election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Democratic Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe, during an interview in Richmond last month. He wants to expand Medicaid coverage in order to improve mental health services in Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

In the wake of the Creigh Deeds family tragedy, it seems instructive to look ahead to how Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe plans to deal with Virginia’s mental health system. I wrote a story last month about the views of both gubernatorial candidates on the state system, based in part on their platforms and in part on questions I asked about key issues. McAuliffe fully favors Virginia expanding its Medicaid coverage through the Affordable Care Act, saying it would provide new health care coverage for about 400,000 Virginians and would increase money for mental health treatment.

Here is McAuliffe’s response to my specific inquiry about the lack of psychiatric hospital beds in Virginia, cited as an issue in the failure to hospitalize Gus Deeds before his violent outburst, including the inability to find him beds which were available:

Q: The change in the standard for committing the mentally ill to hospitals, made after Virginia Tech, has not resulted in an increase in the number of people committed. Some think this is because there aren’t enough hospital beds to put people, others say there hasn’t been enough emphasis on “assisted outpatient commitment,” which requires patients to take their medications or be forcibly hospitalized. Would you favor building/funding more hospital beds for the mentally ill, and/or pushing for more use of the assisted outpatient commitment concept?

McAuliffe: “I support increased investment in the mental health treatment that doctors and public health experts believe best protects the health and safety of our mentally ill population as well as the general public. Just as each case is different, different strategies and treatments will be most effective for different patients. I don’t believe the governor or legislature should be dictating to doctors and patients which types of treatment they should support. Rather, I trust medical professionals, given a clear look at allocated funds from the budget, to determine how best to treat their patients.”

Since being elected, McAuliffe has created a mental health policy group within his transition team, spokesman Brian Coy said Friday. He has named Margaret Nimmo Crowe, executive director of Voices for Virginia’s Children, and Mira Signer, executive director of Virginia’s chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, as the heads of the group. The group will help McAuliffe find a new director of the state health department and to “hit the ground running” on mental health issues, Coy said.

Finally, I heard last week from Dotti McKee of the Brain Foundation, who has been advocating for her son and others with mental illness for years. She sent the following letter to McAuliffe to read:

Governor-elect McAuliffe, just so you know, we do not need to spend more money for yet another Glossy Report to Nowhere on Virginia’s mental health system. We know it is broken as it has been for years. We, who have kids with brain diseases, already know how to fix it. The politicians just need to listen. We need more beds. We need discharge plans and community services and therapists and outpatient help. My son’s 842 days in hospitals, jails and shelters cost more than $365,300 when the cost of a group home with treatment, medication management and crisis care is less than $28,000 a year. The Fairfax County Beaman Commission spent over $500,000. The Virginia Tech Study cost whatever. We DO know the answers. Stop reducing the mental health budget. Stop spending on studies and spend on treatment. My son was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 22, a senior at Radford. He is now 44. What he needed was treatment. 

Tom Jackman is a native of Northern Virginia and has been covering the region for The Post since 1998. In 2011 he launched The State of NoVa blog, a state strictly defined as the boundaries of four counties and one city: Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Alexandria.
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Tom Jackman | November 25, 2013