Pinellas County will soon be part of a pilot program aimed at enhancing mental health services, Gov. Rick Scott announced Wednesday.
As part of the program, the state Department of Children and Families will conduct a "comprehensive review" of local, state and federally funded behavioral health services in Pinellas County. The department will also audit local mental health treatment facilities with an eye toward patient care, safety and security, technology, staffing levels and training.
State officials hope to use the information to help agencies better coordinate their care.
"For the first time in our state, we are trying to look at mental illness on the front end and ensure we find the best ways to support individuals with mental health needs in their communities before they are committed to the custody or supervision of the state," Scott said in a statement.
Clara Reynolds, CEO of the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, praised the initiative, saying it could help the state identify the real cost of care for individuals with mental illness and make recommendations to the Legislature.
"The end result could lead to more flexible and responsive funding for our community," she said.
The pilot program, which launched in July alongside an effort to improve safety at Florida's prisons, was initially limited to Broward County.
But Scott signed an executive order on Wednesday adding Pinellas and Alachua counties to the initiative.
Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said the two counties were selected because they represent "one urban and one rural area, each with substantial existing behavior health infrastructure, individuals in need of intensive services and strong partners committed to working on this collaborative effort with the state."
The National Alliance on Mental Health estimates about 660,000 Floridians live with serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder.
Mental health has been a prominent issue in Pinellas County since John Jonchuck Jr. dropped his 5-year-old daughter Phoebe from a bridge in January. The case raised questions about the lack of collaboration between police and child welfare services, and prompted the DCF to change its hotline protocol to require quicker response in mental health cases.
Scott said the state needed to do a better job of providing mental health services and called the system "too fragmented."
"When you look at our state budget, mental health care funding comes from multiple state agencies, local organizations and non-governmental entities, including $1 billion through (DCF) alone," Scott said. "All of these entities likely provide great services, but we have to better coordinate these organizations to ensure our entire taxpayer funded system is working together to help these patients get the care they need in their own communities, instead of institutions."
Scott is pushing for the development of a streamlined budget process, as well as a system that could track care across agencies.
Barbara Daire, CEO of the nonprofit Suncoast Center, which provides behavioral health services, said the executive order could provide "an opportunity for us to improve the system that we already have."
But she said what the system really needs is more funding.
"We're an underfunded system, and we do need more resources," she said. "If the governor is willing to work with us and DCF to get more funding and resources, that would be wonderful."
Scott's executive order did not address the possibility of additional funding.
Florida ranks 49th in per capita spending on mental health, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.