Advocates for the mentally disabled in Northern Virginia served bacon and eggs--and a healthy dose of lobbying--to members of the General Assembly last week, part of an effort to keep up political pressure on lawmakers before the 2000 legislative session convenes.
About 300 members of the Coalition for Mentally Disabled Citizens and about two dozen state legislators took part in the group's annual breakfast at the Sheraton Premier Hotel in Tysons Corner.
The message? Progress has been made, but more still needs to be done when it comes to providing services for people with mental illness and substance abuse problems.
"We have to make sure this ship stays on course," said Clif Webb, master of ceremonies for the event. "The message has to be sent to those in the wheelhouse to make sure the ship stays going in the right direction."
Last year's legislative session was a banner one for mental health advocates. The General Assembly provided more money than ever for services and passed laws that call for insurance companies to treat mental health and substance abuse claims the same as they do other health claims.
"Our system is much more accountable, and we had a tremendous infusion of cash in the last year," said Raymond Burmester, chairman of the statewide coalition for mentally disabled people. "We are making progress."
But in January, advocates told legislators, the government needs to make sure the new programs are implemented properly.
Mental health advocates noted that there are still several thousand people on waiting lists for mental health and substance abuse services. Walter Kloetzli, chairman of the coalition, urged the crowd to attend a rally Jan. 17 in Richmond to highlight the continuing problems.
State Sen. Jane H. Woods (R-Fairfax), who was defeated in November by former U.S. Rep. Leslie L. Byrne (D), was the keynote speaker at the breakfast. She told the crowd that legislators won't do the right thing unless residents write, fax, call or e-mail their representatives.
"You are the people who are able to paint the picture very clearly about what still needs to be done," she said, urging them not to wait until the new year to begin lobbying. "Your work needs to be done today."
Woods said Virginia needs to modify its Medicaid rules, which she said require adults to sink too far into poverty before they are covered under the federal health care program for the poor.
"We have an abysmally low eligibility threshold for Medicaid," she said. "It isn't just low. It's abysmally low. It's ridiculously low."
Woods also said the state needs to fix the confusing mixture of agencies that are responsible for mental health and substance abuse policies. People who need services throughout Northern Virginia are often confused about which agency is in charge, she said.
In addition to those goals, advocates for mental health reform said the legislature should create a new and permanent commission to study providing behavioral health care in the state.
Retiring State Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax) told the crowd that creating such a legislative commission is necessary if mental health problems are to remain high on the state's priority list, even in years when governors do not focus on those issues.
"If there's one lesson I have learned, it's that the legislature must be kept in this ballgame," Gartlan said. Gartlan was honored at last week's breakfast for his work on behalf of people with mental disabilities and those suffering from substance abuse.
"I'm honored beyond what you can imagine and deeply grateful to the coalition," Gartlan said after receiving the proclamation. He praised the work of the coalition, which includes 15 nonprofit groups throughout Northern Virginia. "Without the people's support, we don't get very far."
The coalition also honored the mother of former Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. Nancy Beyer died about two months ago after spending much of her life advocating for mental health reform in the state.
The former lieutenant governor and his sister, Kathy Beyer, who is mildly retarded, accepted a plaque from the coalition, which will begin awarding the Nancy McDonald Beyer Exemplary Community Service Award once a year.
"My mother was a really shy woman," Donald Beyer said. "And yet, she was so passionate about the issues surrounding those with mental disorders. For us, this award is a wonderful way to honor a woman whose primary role in life was being a mother."
Beyer said yesterday's legislative breakfast should help to further the causes his mother supported.
"We get most of the political and community leadership out once a year to focus on the problem of mental disorders," he said. "It gives the movement an energy and a focus that otherwise wouldn't happen."
CAPTION: Retiring Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D) was honored by the group.