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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Despite reports of violence, no new staff at state hospitals in Rick Scott's budget



Gov. Rick Scott is asking for no new staff to address reports of violence and abuse in the state’s mental hospitals.

In his annual budget request to the state Legislature, released Monday, the governor doesn’t provide for any new workers in the state hospitals where one employee can supervise as many as 15 mentally ill people.

It’s an issue that has recently been in the public eye after an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune highlighted deaths and neglect in the hospitals. The reporting showed an increase in violence corresponding with more than $100 million in budget cuts over the last five years.

In the budget request, Scott addresses safety, as well as overcrowding and limited capacity at the hospitals, which include “forensic” patients who have been deemed unfit to stand trial for a crime or unable to be incarcerated in a state prison, as well as people who have been civilly committed.

But staffing — which the Times and Herald-Tribune reporting found to be central to the problem and which some state lawmakers have called to increase — is not part of it.

The governor does ask for at least 11 additional forensic beds at a cost of $1.2 million. Because people ordered to be housed at the mental hospital by a judge have to be taken in within 15 days, some civil beds have been used for forensic patients, which make up more than half of the population at Florida’s mental hospitals.

He also called for $1.3 million for new security cameras and $350,000 to buy alarms for staff who work with patients, “to increase the safety of staff and health of residents at state-run mental health treatment facilities.” The lack of radios and alarms is among the problems identified by reporters.

The governor has also announced increased funding for community mental health services, which are generally partnerships between the state government and local nonprofit agencies.

The governor’s budget is not a final document. Often, the final spending plan approved by the House and Senate is drastically different from what Scott asks for, but the governor’s proposal is a window into his priorities.

Still, state lawmakers have said that staffing and money are critical to decreasing reports of violence.

"We have to ensure staffing is adequate, but that being said, we have a significant problem with workforce shortages, and I don't know if everyone truly understands," Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, told the Times/Herald earlier this month.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has called out the legislature for not being more proactive in funding the hospitals. In doing so early this month, he made a stark reference to the governor’s signature cell phone and cable bill tax cut, which was a cornerstone of Scott’s budget request last year.

"We'd rather save you 70 cents on your cellphone bill rather than put that money in the budget for people who truly need it," Latvala said. "It's appalling."

[Last modified: Monday, November 23, 2015 4:59pm]


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