California's top Senate Democrat called Tuesday for more investment in mental health services in the state, saying his proposal could improve lives, prevent future tragedies and reduce the burden mentally ill patients put on the state's prisons and hospitals.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is proposing significantly increasing mental health services in the state by adding 2,000 beds and at least 200 "triage personnel" to help individuals with mental health issues. His plan, which he hopes to enact through the state budget process, would also add 25 "Mobile Crisis Support Teams" to provide a range of resources to help people manage their mental illness without turning to emergency rooms or jails.
Steinberg said "invariably heart-breaking and often tragic" stories of what happens when mental illness goes untreated motivated him to craft the proposal. He highlighted the December mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, a federal appeals court's ruling on health care in California prisons and stories chronicled by The Bee of Nevada busing mentally ill patients to California and other states as recent examples of the need for care
"How many more sad stories must we hear? With Newtown, Nevada and the 9th Circuit it is time for action," he said at a press conference in the state Capitol.
The unveiling of the plan comes days after Gov. Jerry Brown submitted a court-ordered plan to reduce the state's prison population. Steinberg said while his mental health services plan might not satisfy the three-judge panel's call for further inmate reductions, it will lower the prison population and recidivism rate for mentally ill inmates over time.
"Ultimately, if we are going to reduce overcrowding over the long term, we have to provide more effective, cost effective ways to keep people who leave the prisons and the jails from returning," he said, citing the success one three-year project for mentally ill parolees has had in cutting down the rate of repeat incarceration.
Steinberg said he has not yet calculated the full price tag for the plan, which would include grants of up to $500,000 for eligible projects. He said he envisions paying for the added services through grant funding offered by the California Endowment, a nonprofit that promotes health care coverage, money from the Proposition 63 tax on millionaires for mental health services, general fund revenues and by enrolling eligible individuals for health care benefits under the new state-run marketplace. He argued that any additional investment would provide big returns for the state over time.
"We are paying already, and we are paying big time," he said. "Our current system is a budget buster, also it's inhumane."
PHOTO CREDIT: Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg describes his proposal on increasing investment in mental health services as Democratic Sen. Jim Beall, chair of the Senate's mental health caucus, looks on. Sacramento Bee/Torey Van Oot.