Behavioral health advocates say Florida Gov. Rick Scott needs to do more than pump $19 million into mental illness and substance abuse programs in order to address problems in the state.
Scott proposes building upon a Broward County pilot program (PDF) that seeks to better coordinate mental health programs.
Scott wants to put $12.8 million into programs that keep people with mental health needs out of jail; $3.7 million to boost community resources; and $2.8 million for services for youth in foster homes.
But experts say that might not be enough.
With per capita spending of about $40 per resident, Florida spends less per person on behavioral health than 48 other states, said Dr. Rajiv Tandon, a member of the Florida Psychiatric Society's executive council.
The national average is $119 per capita and large states such as California and New York spend $160 and $261 per capita, respectively.
Tandon added that Florida spends about $4 billion on mental-health services split between the Department of Children and Families, the federally subsidized Agency for HealthCare Administration, and the Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice.
“So, you have to put that $19 million in the context of $4 billion,” said Tandon, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville. “But it could be a small investment that's part of a larger plan. We don't know.”
County-level jail-diversion programs have been successful, Tandon said, but they are not available statewide. In Alachua County where he lives, Tandon said the effort is bolstered by a special veterans mental health court that receives federal support from the Veterans Affairs Department.
A bigger challenge has been keeping detainees and prisoners on medication they receive while in jail and prison.
“That's a huge problem all over the state with different formularies interfering with that and access issues in jail and prison interfering with that,” Tandon said.
Cindy Schwartz is the director of the jail diversion program with the Florida 11th Circuit Court Criminal Mental Health Project. She noted that Florida is getting better at treating the mental illness of its prison population, but she said earlier intervention is needed.
“Our goal is to decriminalize mental illness,” Schwartz said. “We hope to divert people before they fall completely into the criminal justice system.”
She said her program operates on a combination of county, state and grant funding and seeks to get people charged with low-level crimes into community treatment programs and resolve their cases before they go to trial.
Scott hinted more money for mental health could be forthcoming.
“We look forward to announcing more funding in our recommended budget for Floridians struggling with mental illness and substance abuse later this year,” Scott said in a news release announcing the additional funding.