Lawmakers charged with reforming Virginia’s mental health system have turned over much of the work to two state agencies.
“We have handed off a significant amount of work to JLARC or the department so we are not in this ourselves,” said Sen. Creigh Deeds, who chairs the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health Services that was set up following his family’s 2013 tragedy.
The committee had been expected to complete its work this year but has gained a two-year extension. This is the second two-year extension to the committee formed after Deeds' son wounded him and killed himself. Deeds had gained a judicial order to have his son placed in a psychiatric hospital but was sent home when a community services board was unable to place him before the order expired.
Lawmakers had addressed mental health following the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007 but then cut funding during the recession. The Deeds committee was charged with making recommendations to improve access.
It has commissioned reports to delve into how Virginia allocates funding for mental health services and to determine the gaps in the system, and to look at how they measure against other states. Lawmakers have asked the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to conduct a similar review and make a recommendation on devising a more equitable way to pay for mental health.
Virginia contracts with 40 Community Services Boards to provide services and expects localities to contribute. Some in Northern Virginia are generous with funding, and others pay little to nothing.
Deeds’ committee has studied the system but has not made a recommendation on how to change it. He said during a meeting Tuesday that JLARC should offer a recommendation.
The committee has also looked at the unevenness of available services and has endorsed revisions proposed by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services called STEP Virginia.
Lawmakers on the subcommittee have championed funding for STEP Virginia, and it has achieved same-day access at all of the Community Services Boards. Someone can get an appointment to be evaluated on the same day they call, but it still depends on where they live whether they can get timely access to needed services.
The department is integrating primary care into mental health and is also working this year on funding alternative transportation to psychiatric hospitals so that patients do not have to be taken by law enforcement.
The department is expected this year to come up with a plan to right-size services so that Virginia can move away from repeatedly hospitalizing people with severe mental illnesses and instead treat them in their communities. The state-owned hospitals continue to be filled beyond their capacity.
Lawmakers have asked the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission to review both STEP Virginia and to conduct a review similar to Deeds’ committee in evaluating and devising a more equitable way of paying for mental health.
Deeds said the funding at many CSBs seems to be based solely on last year’s budget.
While waiting for these reports, the committee might this year look more closely at school-based services for children and supportive housing.