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Baker Act horrors

Through tears and anger and broken hearts, the testimony poured out about loved ones who had been taken away and locked up in mental hospitals, despite relatives' protests and against the wills of the patients themselves. Some of the patients died shortly after their forced transfers.

A public hearing in Pinellas Park last week showcased tragic flaws in Florida's Baker Act, a law put in place more than 20 years ago to protect mentally ill people who might be dangerous to themselves or others.

Over the years, the Baker Act has been exploited to fill psychiatric hospital beds with hundreds and hundreds of people who shouldn't be there. Some hospitals aggressively recruit these patients, mostly frail and confused elderly people, sometimes from long distances, to rake in millions of Medicare dollars.

State Rep. Mary Brennan, chair of the House Aging and Human Services Committee, arranged the hearing after a Times series, "A Dangerous Age," detailed abuses of the Baker Act. House Speaker Peter Wallace has made reform of the state commitment law a top priority for the 1996 Legislature.

Regulators, mental health professionals and court officials made worthy suggestions at the hearing. They say nursing homes and service agencies should ensure that less restrictive alternatives to psychiatric lockup are always considered first.

They recommend several other safeguards to protect the patients being committed, including the requirement of a disinterested third party to sign off on involuntary commitments, clarification of the transportation provisions that currently allow people to be shuttled to hospitals far away, and a range of penalties and steep fines for facilities that abuse the law. Finally, they call for tightening the rules governing the number of psychiatric beds in a region. That issue is of particular urgency in Pinellas County, where more mental patients in 1993 and 1994 were locked up than in Dade County, which has twice the population.

"It's cruel, very cruel, what they did to my mother and everyone else," said Paula Drutman at the hearing. Drutman's 88-year-old mother was taken from a Palm Harbor nursing home to the Manors psychiatric hospital even though Drutman instructed that her mother not be taken there, and that nothing be done before consulting her.

Another hearing is planned in Clearwater on Sept. 28.

Brennan, Wallace and the other legislators who are responding seriously to the cruel distortions of the Baker Act deserve praise for their concern and action. The law must be changed to protect the dignity and lives of elderly patients.