Robbing Peter to pay Paul: That is what it has come to in Florida when it comes to mental health resources. In a state that grossly underfunds substance abuse and mental health treatment for poor Floridians, now one of the state's privatized mental health coordinators is contemplating taking up to $3.2 million in state money from Pinellas County and redirecting it to a pair of rural counties. Pinellas County's legislative delegation should make sure that doesn't happen. And then it needs to convince legislative leaders that the state needs to invest more to address mental health issues across the state.
Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger is sounding the alarm that the Central Florida Behavioral Health Network — the coordinating agency that oversees distribution of the state's mental health treatment money in Hills- borough, Pinellas, Pasco and 11 other west-central Florida counties — has been contemplating embarking on an equity funding scheme in coming years. It is proposing shifting over the next three to four years about $3.2 million from Pinellas County treatment providers — agencies such as Boley Centers, Operation PAR and Vincent House — to agencies in Hendry and Glades counties. Perhaps it's just coincidence that Hendry County's state House representative is Republican Matt Hudson, chairman of the House health care appropriations subcommittee.
But state agencies — not private vendors — should be making these funding allocations. The Department of Children and Families has long acknowledged there are funding inequities in various regions in the state when it comes to mental health dollars. In flush years, the department has used new money to close the gaps. But in the 2014-15 state budget just signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, there is no new money for mental health even as lawmakers found more money for schools, state police and tax breaks.
That ensures that Florida will remain at the bottom among the states in spending on mental health care. At just about $40 per capita, Florida is behind only Texas and Idaho and spends less than half of what many other states do, including Mississippi ($115 per capita). The result is "we're fighting over crumbs when what we need is a full loaf of bread," said Dillinger.
The fact is that when poor, mentally ill Floridians aren't able to access treatment, it's not just their quality of life that suffers but also their families. Taxpayers pay more for expensive emergency services when smarter spending to address issues up front would save money. The debate should not be whether Hendry and Glades counties need the money more than Pinellas. It should be about how the state can finally invest enough in mental health care so that every county has what it needs to stabilize the indigent mentally ill.