Kaine Touts Legislative Reforms for Mentally Ill

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 13, 2008

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) told Northern Virginia residents yesterday that the state has taken steps to correct many of the problems in its mental health system that might have contributed to Seung Hui Cho's shooting rampage nearly a year ago at Virginia Tech.

The governor highlighted several reforms in a package of bills he signed last week, which expand services and monitoring for those with mental illness, to an audience of more than 200 residents and local officials in Falls Church, an area close to home for families of many of the victims and Cho.

Wednesday marks the anniversary of the rampage by Cho, who took 32 lives and then his own on the Blacksburg campus. Two years earlier, a judge had ordered Cho to seek treatment, saying he was an imminent danger to himself, but neither the court, the university nor any other agency followed up to see that he received it.

A state panel appointed by Kaine to investigate the massacre offered "a real indictment of this state's lack of commitment to community mental health service," Kaine said yesterday.

"We did not fund it well. We did not expect much from it," he said.

So in January, the governor and General Assembly set out to improve services for more people. They lowered the criteria for someone to be involuntarily sent into treatment, and they added $42 million to the state's community health-care budget to add caseworkers and psychiatrists to offer services to more people, "so they don't have to be seriously mentally ill to get in and see someone," Kaine said.

The elected officials also developed measures to increase accountability in the system so there will be more oversight if someone is ordered into treatment.

The town hall meeting at Luther Jackson Middle School in Falls Church was the last in a series of such gatherings the governor has held since the General Assembly adjourned nearly four weeks ago.

The governor also highlighted other laws passed this year, including one that pushes back the time that foreclosure proceedings will begin for those in danger of losing their homes. He also pointed out goals he did not accomplish, including closing a loophole that permits unlicensed vendors to sell guns at gun shows without requiring a background check and identifying new funding sources for transportation maintenance and new construction.

Many in the audience wore green stickers that read "FUND TRANSPORTATION NOW." They applauded when he said he is planning to call for a special session this spring to come up with solutions for gridlock and aging infrastructure. Many Republicans oppose tax increases for transportation, so it is not clear that a solution is possible this year.

Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax), who attended the meeting, said reforming the mental health system was a "wonderful, constructive experience" because it brought Republicans and Democrats together in what she described as an increasingly polarized environment in Richmond. "Wouldn't it be nice if we could extend" that cooperation to the state's transportation needs, she said.

Dozens of people turned out to oppose construction of a proposed coal-fire power plant in southwest Virginia, which Kaine supports, and encourage the governor to promote greener forms of energy.

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