McAuliffe wants to expand Virginia mental health system

Democratic nominee for governor Terry McAuliffe wants to revamp and reinvest in Virginia's mental health system so that the state's jails and prisons no longer serve as warehouses for the mentally ill.

In a policy proposal released to The Daily Press Monday, McAuliffe made a case for:

• Increasing training for police officers.

• Creating more high capacity crisis stabilization centers and long-term supportive housing for the mentally ill and homeless.

• Improving accountability and efficiency in the system.

• Ensuring veterans are aware of and engaged with services offered so that state can better treat mental illness and save money.

McAuliffe cited mass shootings last year in Newtown, Conn., and Oak Creek, Wisc., as examples of the need to improve the system.

"Recent tragedies have shed light on the critical need to take a look at mental health treatment," he said. "Here in Virginia we are underfunding and under supporting our mental health system."

Last month The Daily Press ran a series of stories that showed that many of the commonwealth's mentally ill serve time in jail and prison rather than get the treatment they need. Nearly a third of the state's incarcerated population suffer from mental illness according to the 2012 "Mentally Ill in Jail" report from the Vriginia Compensation Board. More than half of those suffering from severe illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Often these inmates are isolated in jails and do not receive comprehensive treatment for their illnesses.

One of the problems is a lack of resources for the mentally ill outside of jails and the limited number of beds in the state's mental health hospitals. McAuliffe believes more crisis stabilization centers — short-term residential facilities for individuals suffering episodes of acute mental illness — and supportive housing would create those resources. Supportive housing combines affordable housing with regular visits by social workers, mental health care professionals and counseling to help with day to day needs of living with a mental illness.

McAuliffe wants to offer more training to the state's law enforcement officials on how to deal with people suffering from a mental health crisis, which would help them determine whether an individual needs to go to jail or an appropriate mental health care facility.

The Northern Virginia entrepreneur also wants to develop regulations for licensing of Medicaid-funded mental health services that are based on best practices in the field, and make sure the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services has enough staffing "for licensing, administering audits, and otherwise ensuring that services are delivered efficiently, properly, and lawfully."

"There are some common sense reforms we can make to help get Virginians in need the best possible care," McAuliffe said. "An important part of making Virginia the best place to work and live is increasing quality of life. Addressing our short fallings in mental health care is a health issue, a public safety issue, and an important part in our mission to make Virginia the best place to live, it's also just the right thing to do."

To fund the additional services McAuliffe is looking at savings to the state from spending less on incarcerating mentally ill individuals; expanding the state's Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act; and making it a budget priority along with tax reform that closes loopholes and exemptions.

Expanding Medicaid — the state's health care program for the poor — to 133 percent of the federal poverty level would offer insurance coverage for services to many of the commonwealth's uninsured. The federal government has promised to fund 100 percent of the expansion for the first three years and to fund 90 percent thereafter.

Medicaid expansion has been a hot button issue in Virginia, often along party lines. Last session the General Assembly voted to create a commission of 10 lawmakers that will oversee reforms to the state's current Medicaid program as laid out by Gov. Bob McDonnell that must be made before they can give the green light to Medicaid expansion.

McAuliffe's Republican opponent in the governor's race, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, opposes Medicaid expansion.

But Cuccinelli has also made improving the state's mental health services a priority. While he has yet to release his policy proposals, Cuccinelli highlights his commitment to better mental health care system during campaign stops.

Last month at a stop in Yorktown Cuccinelli described himself as a "leading advocate" on the issue as a lawmaker.

"I understand the complexity of that system and I'm absolutely passionate and committed to improving it," Cuccinelli said.

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