Va. Urged to Increase Spending on Mental Health

By Anita Kumar and Tim craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 5, 2008

RICHMOND, Jan. 4 -- As GOP legislators unveiled proposals Friday to overhaul Virginia's mental health system, advocates for the mentally ill urged Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and the General Assembly to pump tens of millions of additional dollars into underfunded programs.

Improving the state's mental health system became a priority after Seung Hui Cho, a Virginia Tech senior with a history of psychiatric problems, shot and killed 32 people and himself on campus in April.

"The Virginia Tech tragedy highlighted what family members and mental health consumers have known for years and years and years,'' said Mira Signer, executive director of NAMI Virginia (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill). "The system was strapped for resources, and the system could not meet the needs people had."

As part of his two-year spending plan, Kaine (D) has proposed boosting funding by $42 million for more caseworkers, psychiatrists and other staff to treat and monitor the mentally ill. NAMI would like $25 million on top of that.

The General Assembly, which begins a 60-day session Wednesday, must approve the spending.

The governor defended his budget plan Friday, saying he has recommended as much money as the system can handle over the next two years. "We really felt like the package we put together is the most substantial package we can do, given the available manpower,'' he said.

Kaine and legislators from both parties generally agree that the state's mental health system needs more money and alterations, but there are expected to be disagreements during the legislative session over exactly what to do. Many proposals will be based on recommendations made by the Virginia Tech Review Panel, set up by the governor, and the Commission on Mental Health Law Reform, appointed by state Chief Justice Leroy Rountree Hassell Sr.

On Friday, top Republicans on the House Courts of Justice Committee released 20 proposals that will become bills to change the mental health system. Most focus on making it easier to commit someone who poses a danger, bolstering oversight of community services boards and changing the standards for and practices at commitment hearings.

"All of us are hopeful we can fix what we can, but, at a minimum, we want to address what happened at Tech," said Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Charlottesville), chairman of the House Special Subcommittee on Mental Health Commitment.

The proposals were developed after committee members spent hours this summer obtaining testimony on the failures of the system, exposed during the Virginia Tech massacre and the May 2006 deaths of two Fairfax County police officers shot by an 18-year-old who had psychiatric problems.

One of the proposals would make it easier for parents and health providers to receive information about an adult in need of mental health treatment. Privacy barriers prevented Virginia Tech and mental health officials from sharing Seung Hui Cho's mental condition with his parents in the weeks leading up to his rampage.

"If in fact you are so dangerously ill that you are a danger to yourself or others, that is clearly a point where we want the parents involved," Bell said.

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