Virginia spends only 52% of the national average on community-based mental health according to a national non-profit called Mental Health America, ranking the state 38th compared to others. The news comes as a group co-chaired by Senator Creigh Deeds meets in Richmond to review goals for the legislative session which begins in January.
It’s been nearly three years since Creigh Deeds’ son Gus was turned away by Rockbridge County Community Services. Officials there said no psychiatric beds were available at area hospitals. The following day, Gus stabbed his father repeatedly - then shot himself and died. Since then, the senator has vowed to fix Virginia’s mental health care system.
“We have to move forward. People are watching us. We can’t blow it.”
Already, the legislature has established a computer registry that allows doctors, psychologists and social workers to find out - in real time -- which hospitals have space for someone suffering a mental breakdown. At first, Deeds says, some private hospitals were confused.
“In the first year of the registry we had a problem over the definition of real time. We had to go back the year after we passed that legislation and say, ‘This is what real time means. You need to let us know at least every day what’s available.’”
And lawmakers created a safety net for patients in crisis - assuring anyone who’s declared by a judge to be a danger to himself, herself or others will be admitted to a state hospital if no other facility is available.
The commission will continue to meet for one more year before making final recommendations. Among other things, members will likely ask for additional funding to establish supportive, affordable housing for adults who are mentally ill.
“We’ve got people waiting in hospitals right now who are ready to go home, but they’ve got nowhere to go. So often with mental illness you alienate the people closest to you.”
Deeds admits it will be difficult to find the money, but at an event in Charlottesville this week, Governor Terry McAuliffe offered one possible source - expanding Medicaid.
“I can save our budget $211 million every year. That money can go right into mental health, opiate addiction. Every Virginia resident should understand - this is your money. You paid it in. You get 100% of it back, and the Republicans in the General Assembly keep saying no.”
One Republican who could be tempted to change his vote is Delegate Rob Bell. He has a son who is mentally ill, and he’s Deeds’ co-chair on the committee appointed to study Virginia’s mental health services in the 21st century.
Republican Delegate Peter Farrell warned that Virginia might be forced to provide more community-based services if it keeps putting so many people into state hospitals.
“We have a number of folks who are ready to leave but have no place to go," Farrell said. "Some probably should not have been there in the first place if we had intervened earlier, but if we don’t start to get a grasp on this in the next couple of years, there is the potential for the Department of Justice to come pay us a visit again.”
And proponents argued the state should consider these improvements an investment that will, in the long term, save money by keeping mentally ill people out of expensive hospitals, jails and prisons.