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McAuliffe signs ‘first step’ to reforming Virginia’s mental health system

Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, right, speaks after Gov. Terry McAuliffe signs SB260, mental health reform legislation, at the University of Virginia Medical Center on Monday in Charlottesville, Va. (Ryan M Kelly/AP)

With Sen. R. Creigh Deeds at his side, Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Monday signed legislation meant to reform the mental health system that Deeds said failed his mentally ill son, who stabbed the senator before killing himself in November.

McAuliffe (D) traveled to Charlottesville to ceremonially sign the bill at the hospital that treated Deeds, the Democratic nominee for governor in 2009, for stab wounds. A bipartisan group of senators and delegates came from as far as Northern Virginia to witness the event, pledging to keep pushing for more reforms.

“It’s an important first step,” McAuliffe said. “Let us be crystal clear: We have a long, long way to go.”

Deeds (Bath), his face visibly scarred from the attack, did not speak during the brief ceremony in a conference room at the University of Virginia Health System. But he nodded his head as the governor spoke.

He was accompanied by one of his three grown daughters, Rebecca, who accepted a pen that McAuliffe used to sign the legislation.

Virginia State Sen. Creigh Deeds speaks during a luncheon at the National Press Club in Washington on March 31. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Deeds looked down as Del. Rob B. Bell III (R-Albemarle), offered the only personal comments about Deeds’s late son, Austin “Gus” Deeds, a William & Mary student who was writing a symphony for the banjo and had volunteered on his father’s failed bid for governor.

“Gus was a very talented young man and would have gone on to do great things,” Bell said.

Austin Deeds had undergone a psychiatric evaluation in November, and a magistrate judge issued an emergency custody order. But he was sent home after being told no psychiatric bed was available.

The next day at the family home, he stabbed his father repeatedly in the face and chest, then fatally shot himself.

Officials at the local community service board initially said all area hospitals had been contacted but none had space for the younger Deeds. But three nearby hospitals later confirmed that they had beds but had not been called.

The tragedy prompted widespread support to reform the mental health system, providing bipartisan impetus for a General Assembly so bitterly split over whether to expand Medicaid that it has been unable to pass a state budget. McAuliffe said at the ceremony that he wanted to remain focused on the mental health legislation, but he noted that expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act would provide millions of dollars more for mental health care.

The General Assembly had taken up the cause of mental health reform after the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, boosting funding by tens of millions of dollars. But the extra money dried up with the recession.

During this year’s General Assembly session, legislators voted to give officials more time to find psychiatric placements for patients under custody orders. If one cannot be found before such an order expires, the new law requires the state to provide a bed of last resort. It also compels the state to maintain a “real-time” online registry of available beds, a project that had been in the works for years but did not come to fruition until after Austin Deeds’s death.

The General Assembly also mandated closer monitoring of court-ordered outpatient treatment and initiated a four-year study of mental-health services to identify additional reforms.

Legislators who gathered for the signing promised to push for more reforms. Del. Benjamin L. Cline (R-Rockbridge) said he was focused on improving community service boards; an investigation found that a board official only called a few hospitals seeking a bed for Austin Deeds before declaring that none was available.

Others said they were focused on getting people help earlier.

“We want to make sure the people who have mental illness have access to the care they need before it gets to a crisis,” said Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a medical doctor who will chair the governor’s task force on mental health.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.

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