RICHMOND — Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) will ask the General Assembly for $31.7 million to improve and standardize treatment for mental illness and substance abuse around the state when he presents his budget on Friday.
The initiative will be one of the biggest and costliest proposals of McAuliffe’s final General Assembly session, his office said. Virginia governors are limited to a single four-year term, and McAuliffe’s winds up after next year.
“As we all know, our current behavioral health system is not a 21st century system,” McAuliffe said Wednesday in announcing the proposal. “It was set up many decades ago when we did not understand all the issues that we needed to. . . . It was a system that was built around institutionalizing individuals in order to treat them, and that does not breed success.”
Instead of responding only in times of crisis, he said, the state mental-health system needs to be updated to reflect current thinking about treatment and to provide consistent care around the state. In Virginia, regional agencies known as community services boards screen people for admission to publicly funded mental-health or substance-abuse services. There are 40 such boards in localities across the state, and they all operate differently.
“If we are successful, Virginians no matter where they are — that they be in Dickinson County, or Fairfax County — should all receive the same level of care,” McAuliffe said.
His budget will call for:
●$8.2 million to fund more staffers at the community boards around the state so they can evaluate people seeking help on a same-day turnaround.
●$7.4 million to help state mental-health hospitals deal with a capacity crunch, enabling them to pay for beds in private facilities or take other steps to alleviate crowding.
●$2.1 million to hire another 24 full-time security employees at state mental hospitals.
●$5.3 million to help prevent opioid overdoses, including treatment and buying doses of naloxone, a drug that can stop the effects of heroin and other opioids.
●$4.2 million for positions to conduct mental-health screening at local and regional jails.
As part of the request, McAuliffe is also seeking $4.5 million to conduct a study of all related statewide services and come up with a comprehensive behavioral health-care plan.
Many of the same issues have also been evaluated by the General Assembly’s Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services, which has announced its own package of legislation for the upcoming session.
That effort is led by state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath), whose son was denied mental-health services and then stabbed his father before killing himself in 2013.
Asked why he wanted to spend $4.5 million to study something that’s already being studied, McAuliffe said it’s important for state government itself to take stock of the issues.
“We’ve reached out to Senator Deeds; he’s very supportive of what we announced here today,” McAuliffe said. “I believe it is incumbent upon us to use all of our state resources to bring everybody together under our auspices to come up with a comprehensive plan.”
Several uniformed sheriffs, deputies and other law enforcement officials attended the news conference and applauded McAuliffe’s announcements. About 16 percent of the state’s jail population suffers from some form of mental illness, according to state figures.
Law enforcement also is grappling with what the state has officially declared to be a public health emergency of opioid addiction and overdoses. The state is on pace for 1,000 overdose deaths this year — more than deaths from gun homicides or automobile crashes.
“To any family or to any Virginian out there who is struggling with addiction,” state Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) said at the news conference, “help is on the way.”