TALLAHASSEE — A restructuring meant to force different parts of Florida's mental health system to work together is now law.
Gov. Rick Scott on Friday signed SB 12, which requires communities — health professionals, police, courts, jails and local charities — to work together to develop a local plan for mental health and substance abuse treatment.
The goal is to create "no wrong door," the legislation's sponsors said, so that no matter how someone enters the system, they get immediate access to the right kind of care, as well as followup services in the future.
But in the long run, supporters' hopes are even higher.
"We'll have an absolute infrastructure that will work for every door," Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, said in an interview with the Times/Herald last month. "And we won't be using our jails and our prisons as mental hospitals."
As many as 40,000 of the state's mentally ill are currently in prison, according to Department of Corrections Secretary Julie Jones.
Many of the most serious — and most expensive — cases are in the state's mental hospitals. Years of budget cuts, abuse and neglect were the subject of an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune that brought them into the spotlight.
To address issues brought to light in that series, lawmakers added $16 million to the mental hospitals budgets, according to an analysis by Mike Hansen, CEO of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health.
This figure includes dozens of full-time workers, a pool of money for temporary employees, $2.4 million to contract with psychiatrists and other professional staff members, and $1.5 million for safety equipment such as security cameras and body alarms.
Lawmakers also added about $42 million to improve community programs geared toward mental health. Among other things, the money will be used to add more community beds so patients can leave hospitals sooner.
"These are the first major changes to Florida's mental health crisis in years," Hansen said.
Linda McKinnon, president and CEO of the Central Florida Behavioral Health network, said she hopes the changes allow people to receive services earlier in the process. "The goal is for the front door to be much earlier than the equivalent of having a massive heart attack," she said.
But to reduce strain on mental hospitals, jails and prisons, local groups like McKinnon's will have to work even more closely with sheriffs, judges and other key players in their communities. That's where the new law signed Friday comes in.
Each county is now tasked with creating a plan to ensure everyone has access to care. That means creating locations across the state to determine what kind of services people need — a sort of mental health emergency room to serve those in crisis, whether they recognize it themselves, are involuntarily committed under the Baker or Marchman acts, or a police officer decides it's best to bring them there instead of jail.
As a model, lawmakers have looked to Orange County, where law enforcement officers take people they believe to be experiencing a mental health crisis to a "central receiving center" instead of jail.
Along with other changes passed this year that give courts additional options for diverting people with mentally illness or substance abuse disorders and give psychiatric nurses more authority, advocates say this is the most dramatic shift in mental health policy since the Baker Act was passed 45 years ago.
Times staff writer Anthony Cormier contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MichaelAuslen.