Several mental health advocacy organizations have begun a campaign to pressure state lawmakers to restore cuts to Florida's mental health programs, including the $100 million from hospitals that was the focus of an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
By Tuesday, the first day of Florida's 2016 legislative session, more than 2,000 people had emailed a form letter to House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and other lawmakers seeking action. Three electronic billboards appeared in Tallahassee, demanding legislators' help and pointing out the state's rank of 49th in mental health funding.
Organizers also created the Twitter hashtag #ElectHealthFL and used it to share information on how Florida compares with other states. One graphic noted that Florida spends $37.28 per capita on mental health compared with $338.24 per person in Maine and $114.95 in Mississippi.
"We were just frustrated," said Candice Crawford, president and CEO of Mental Health Association of Central Florida, which organized the effort. "If you take the funding that has been reduced at the state hospitals and the funding that has been reduced for everybody else, we are in terrible shape in Florida."
A spokesperson for Crisafulli said he was unable to respond to the campaign because no one had contacted him about it.
The campaign comes just as Gov. Rick Scott begins airing television ads touting his plan to cut $1 billion in taxes, including all corporate income taxes charged to manufacturers and retail companies.
"The governor is calling for $1 billion in tax cuts while we're getting no funding?" Crawford said. "It makes my head spin off my shoulders."
The Times/Herald-Tribune investigation — "Insane. Invisible. In danger." — revealed that the state cut $100 million from the state's mental hospitals since 2009 and reduced staff by a third, leading to years of neglect that have put patients and staff in danger. Violent attacks and other injuries doubled, leading to at least 15 deaths. Reporters found cases where details about patient deaths were sealed by the Department of Children and Families, even when employees made mistakes or delayed calling 911.
Nanette Honsberger, 54, a supervisor at Northeast Florida State Hospital, was attacked in December 2014 by a patient who had already attacked three other staff members and one patient. The man threatened Honsberger, 54, several times before cornering her at the nurse's station one day. He broke her eye socket and her nose. It took two months to heal and return to her job.
Honsberger said state officials promised to install plexiglass in the nurse's station to protect staff, but they never did.
"I'm still afraid," Honsberger said. "Nothing has changed here."
On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs will hear from the state agency in charge of mental hospitals about "emergency measures" to improve safety at the hospitals.
Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, who chairs the committee, has told the Times she expects the Department of Children and Families to present more than cosmetic fixes. She believes the institutions need more money and more staff members to better care for patients.
Crawford said that the latest figures on state spending place Florida at No. 50 in the nation in terms of mental health spending, down from No. 49 last year. A 2014 Florida TaxWatch analysis of the state's behavioral health "managing entities" showed that from 2008 to 2014, Florida cut $140 million, in inflation-adjusted dollars, from mental health and substance abuse services.
The Florida TaxWatch report noted that from 2009 to 2012, mental health funding dropped by $4.4 billion across the United States. But 36 states have made behavioral health services a "priority" since then. In 2014, Texas, for example, added $259 million for mental health.
Scott has proposed $19 million in additional funding this session "to support individuals with mental health needs in their communities instead of the state's custody."
But advocates says it's difficult to see how that will help. A recent survey by the Florida Community Council on Mental Health reported a loss of more than 900 psychiatric beds in Florida communities during the past decade.
Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health Services in Pinellas County lost 20 short-term residential beds a few years ago, said CEO Thomas Wedekind.
"More people are coming in the door but the dollars don't change," he said. "It's becoming more and more difficult to provide quality staff and quality services. And when people go out the back door, the lack of community support for them is overwhelming."
Times staff writer Anthony Cormier contributed to this report. Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at 727-893-8640 or email@example.com.