Commentary: Florida, this is insanity

The Miami HeraldFebruary 23, 2012 

Thank God for Texas. Else we’d rank as the most barbaric backwater in the nation. Even infamously unenlightened states like Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina spend more per capita on mental health than Florida.

Joe Negron aims to fix that. The powerful state senator from Hobe Sound, who oversees the Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services Appropriations, has pushed a $76.1 million reduction in the state’s mental health services budget through the Senate. Another $31.6 million would come out of the state’s substance abuse treatment programs.

Florida would be alone at the nadir. (Thank God, then, for Honduras.)

If the Senate version prevails over a less Draconian appropriation in the House, 34 percent of the mental health funding, and 25.5 percent of the money for substance abuse, would disappear. Some 140,000 patients would be tossed from their community treatment programs. A number of these non-profit programs would shut down. (Even without the Negron cuts, the Department of Children & Families has admitted that it hasn’t been able to provide services to 170,000 adults and 40,000 children with serious mental illnesses.)

But Negron, a self-described libertarian, doesn’t believe in funding community treatment programs as a matter of philosophy. Last September, in a rambling opening statement before the Senate appropriations committee, Sen. Negron explained why he thought treatment money would be better spent elsewhere. He dismissed the notion that if we sent our mentally ill and drug addicts (often, in the real world, the same patients) to “classes, and have more programs, they would not do the things that they are doing and we don’t want them to do.

“I would argue that the majority of things that people do that cause negative things to happen to [them] and the people they care about are not a result of the lack of information, they’re a result of a lack of willpower, a lack of discipline, a lack of character.”

Mental illness, as far as Negron’s concerned, seems to be a lifestyle choice by an irresponsible rabble.

To be fair, he did admit that some of Florida’s afflicted are victims of circumstance. But he still wasn’t inclined to help. “You know what — you can’t solve all problems,” he said. “If you grow up and your father abandoned the family and you don’t know where your father is, he’s not [meeting] his responsibilities. If you have a mother, through no fault of her own, who may have an issue, who may have something where she is not able to take care of you and you are bouncing from foster home to foster home, let’s be honest with ourselves. There’s only so much we can do.”

Negron, obviously, dwells out there on the political fringe. But that doesn’t matter in the modern incarnation of the state Legislature, which imbues a few politicians with outlandish power. (Just ask the administrators at the University of South Florida what happened when they crossed a single, powerful legislator like Sen. J.D. Alexander.) Negron’s odd views prevailed in the Senate not because anyone much agreed with him but because he’ll be back next year in an even more formidable position. Besides, cutting out the mentally ill and substance abusers, not exactly constituencies apt to get organized before the next election, reduces the state’s budget deficit by a sweet $108 million.

The House version doesn’t cut the programs, but Bob Sharpe, president of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health, worries that budget negotiators will be so preoccupied with the Senate bill’s equally devastating $620 million cut in hospital Medicaid payments that they’ll not muster a defense for community mental health funding. He worries that the mental health cuts could become a convenient negotiating chit for saving the hospitals.

Of course, it’s not like the mentally ill, without treatment, will just go away. (Or, as Negron supposes, come to their senses.) They will be wandering the streets, live in homeless settlements, commit petty crimes, get scarfed up by police. Police in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties handled 16,000 mental health-related calls last year. Without the crisis intervention programs, police will have no option but to haul these folks off to jail.

The mentally ill are already the fastest-growing segment of the state prison population. And one of the most expensive to house. Sharpe suggested that Florida spends more per capita on corrections than all but 11 other states exactly because Florida spends so little on mental health intervention.

Most of the financial burden will land on local governments. The real costs of Negron’s cuts will be borne by county jails and public hospital emergency rooms.

Unless, of course, the mentally afflicted choose to adopt another, less costly lifestyle.

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