McDonnell proposes $38 million for mental health crises


Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell gestures during a news conference announcing his new mental health initiatives at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. (Steve Helber/AP)
December 10, 2013

— Gov. Robert F. McDonnell will include more than $38 million in his two-year budget proposal to improve how the state serves people in the midst of mental health crises.

McDonnell (R) announced the new money at a Capitol Square news conference Tuesday, less than a week before he will unveil his entire spending plan to the General Assembly and three weeks after the son of state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D) stabbed the senator and then fatally shot himself. Sen. Deeds survived the attack.

McDonnell stressed that the budget proposal was not a direct response to the tragedy involving Austin Deeds. The younger Deeds had undergone a psychiatric evaluation the day before he killed himself, and a magistrate judge had issued an emergency custody order.

But Austin Deeds was not admitted to a hospital, and he returned home. Officials initially said that was because no beds could be located before the custody order expired. But three nearby hospitals later confirmed that they had space but never were contacted.

McDonnell said many of the proposals had been in the works for the past year as outgrowths of a task force he appointed after Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre last December.

“This is about fixing the system for all Virginians,” he said. “Overall, Virginia has a very, very good and competent mental health system. . . . But we’re always looking for ways to improve it.”

Some of the proposals might have had an impact on cases such as Deeds’s, which is the subject of two state investigations. McDonnell proposed extending by two hours the time that authorities could hold someone under an emergency custody order. McDonnell’s plan also calls for increasing psychiatric bed capacity and expanding the availability of crisis centers, where someone could be held safely for an evaluation.

William A. Hazel Jr., McDonnell’s secretary of health and human resources, announced that a database to provide local mental health officials with real-time information about available psychiatric beds across the state would be operational by January. But Hazel warned that the database, which has been in the works for years, will not be “a panacea.” The tool will only be as good as the information that individual hospitals plug into it, he said, noting that bed availability is something that changes throughout the day with admissions and discharges.

McDonnell proposed using some of the money to expand the state’s “telepsychiatry” capacity, devoting $1.7 million during the two years to equipment that would allow community service boards to conduct clinical evaluations remotely and more quickly.

McDonnell also issued an executive order — his 68th — to create a task force on mental health services. It calls for mental health, hospital, law enforcement and judicial officials, along with people with mental illness and their families, to recommend ways to improve the state’s mental health services and help prevent crises.

Gov.-elect Terry McAuliffe (D), who takes office Jan. 11, pledged to issue an executive order of his own to continue the task force’s work.

“As governor I will work with the General Assembly to build upon the solid foundation Governor McDonnell laid today so that all Virginians can access the care and resources they need to live safe, healthy and productive lives here in the Commonwealth,” McAuliffe said in a written statement.

The $38.3 million McDonnell is proposing would come on top of $95.8 million to serve people with mental illness or developmental disabilities, as required under a 2012 settlement with the U.S. Justice Department.

The settlement came after the Justice Department found that Virginia had failed to provide services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the “most integrated setting appropriate to their needs,” according to the state’s summary of the settlement.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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