Did Va. lawmakers blow their best chance to strengthen mental health system?

Virginia lawmakers last week finally approved a $55 million boost in funding for the state’s long-troubled mental health system. But they may have passed up a chance to inject more than $1 billion into the system, mental health advocates said.
The $55 million funding boost was part of the same long-delayed budget bill that Republican lawmakers got through the General Assembly last week that would also thwart Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s efforts to expand Medicaid. McAuliffe must now decide whether to sign the legislation or risk the first government shutdown in the state’s history.
Shoring up the state’s long troubled mental health-care system was a rare bipartisan priority in Richmond this year after the November death of Austin “Gus” Deeds, son of former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds (Bath). Since returning to work in January,  Creigh Deeds has served as a living reminder to his colleagues of the consequences of the system’s failings.
Yet, the potential impact of Medicaid expansion on the mental health system has gotten little attention in the ongoing drama over the Medicaid expansion that has gripped the state for the past several months.
About half of the funds for taxpayer-supported mental health services come from Medicaid, state figures show.
Medicaid expansion offered a rare opportunity, advocates say, to cover an estimated 77,000 uninsured Virginians with a mental health disorder.  “These are the very people our society should be focused on providing health care and mental health care to — before a crisis situation hits,” said Mira Signer, executive director of NAMI Virginia.

But lawmakers in Richmond have largely kept mental health reform out of the debate over Medicaid expansion, a distinction that  will cost taxpayers in the long run, Signer said, because the seriously mentally ill will continue to show up in hospital emergency rooms, take up costly beds in state psychiatric facilities and fill up jails and prisons.

“Virginia’s legislature had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve our mental health-care system by closing the coverage gap,” she said. “And they blew it.”
Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.

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Annys Shin · June 17, 2014