Tucson shooting draws attention to Arizona's mental health laws, funding

Colleagues pay tribute to wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords during the president's State of the Union address as the Arizona lawmaker begins the next phase of her recovery at a rehab facility in Houston.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 8:26 PM

TUCSON - The shooting rampage here that killed six and injured a congresswoman and 12 others has sparked a potentially fractious debate among Arizona lawmakers over two intertwined issues: state laws governing gun purchases and legislators' efforts to change mental health laws.

But even as legislators prepare bills on the state's mental health system, Arizona - like other states across the country - finds itself in a massive budget crisis. In Arizona's case, the budget problems could result in drastic cuts to existing programs helping the mentally ill.

Under the budget proposal presented by Gov. Jan Brewer (R) last week, the state would effectively cut health care for roughly 280,000 low-income Arizonans currently under the state's Medicaid program, including an estimated 5,200 who are mentally disabled. Brewer is preserving $10.3 million for those affected to purchase generic prescription drugs, but they would lose all other care.

In the looming debate over mental health, Brewer is a central figure. Throughout her career, she has advocated for behavioral health services; her adult son, Ron, has long suffered from a mental illness and has been living in a state institution. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a sexual assault and kidnapping case 20 years ago.

'Perfect storm'

With Arizona facing a $1.1 billion shortfall in the next fiscal year, Brewer proposed dropping some of the indigent from state rolls - a move she described as critical to balancing the budget.

In the wake of the Jan. 8 shooting outside a Tucson supermarket - before which alleged gunman Jared L. Loughner showed signs of mental instability, authorities and friends say - advocates and some political leaders say the budget cuts would result in mentally fragile people being turned away for help and potentially becoming a threat to society.

"It's a perfect storm here in Arizona," said state Rep. Matt Heinz (D), a Tucson doctor and friend of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D), who was injured in the attack.

"Services are being slashed and burned," he said. "Potentially in the next few months we'll be releasing thousands of folks from their relative stability. Our community resources are strapped beyond belief. And the state, which you'd think would be the safety net, we've lit the net on fire."

Heinz and state Sen. Paula Aboud (D), who replaced Giffords when she left the state Senate for Congress, said they plan to introduce legislation that would allow any school, business or other entity that sees a person exhibit erratic behavior to report that person to authorities. The state then would flag that person in the gun registry and require the person to pass a mental health evaluation before being able to purchase a weapon.

While Loughner's teachers and classmates at Pima Community College grew increasingly concerned about his behavior, officials said that none asked authorities that he be involuntarily evaluated for mental illness and potentially committed to psychiatric treatment.

"The schools had some concern, but he could buy a gun without a mental health evaluation," Aboud said. "Somewhere in there is a loophole. . . . If they're seeing that somebody's exhibiting some form of mental issues that are a threat to other people, then there needs to be some encouragement to report them to authorities, that those names be put on the gun registry list and they get flagged and a gun isn't automatically sold to that person without further checking."

Aboud acknowledged that her bill would face a steep climb in Phoenix, where both chambers of the legislature are controlled by Republican supermajorities. Arizona has some of the nation's most permissive gun laws, and legislative leaders said they would continue fighting to protect the constitutional right to bear arms.

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