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Solid reforms for Florida’s mental health system | Editorial
Making better use of state’s resources to build safer communities.
The Florida State Capitol Building in Tallahassee. A state commission has proposed sweeping reforms of Florida's mental health care system. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
The Florida State Capitol Building in Tallahassee. A state commission has proposed sweeping reforms of Florida's mental health care system. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack) [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | Associated Press ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 18

A state commission has proposed some sensible reforms for Florida’s beleaguered mental health system. The measures would improve services for those who need it, give Florida taxpayers more bang for their buck and make our communities safer. Gov. Ron DeSantis should champion these improvements with the Republican-led Legislature.

The recommendations come from the Commission on Mental Health and Substance Abuse, which was created after the Florida grand jury that investigated the 2018 Parkland school massacre aptly characterized the state’s mental health system as “a mess.” Though the panel’s final report to the governor and Legislature is not due until September, the commission’s initial findings, shared recently with the Tampa Bay Times, outline key steps that lawmakers should consider when the legislative session begins March 7.

As the commission chairperson, Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Prummell, noted, Florida’s mental health system is a hodge-podge that spends too little on preventive care and doesn’t adequately steer clients to a continuum of services. Nearly 3 million Florida adults have a mental illness, according to national advocacy group Mental Health America. Yet Florida is often ranked near the bottom among states in its funding for front-end community-based services intended to help those experiencing a crisis to adapt. Children needing services often reach a dead end as they age out of the juvenile system and find themselves searching for providers alone. And shortages of mental health professionals and disparities in resources means that services can vary greatly from one county to the next.

One key recommendation in the board’s initial report is for Florida to study the “potential impact” of expanding Medicaid eligibility for young adults ages 26 and under who are in the so-called coverage gap and whose parents are uninsured. Before the pandemic, an estimated 415,000 people in the Sunshine State earned too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough for tax credits to help them buy private health insurance through the Affordable Care Act marketplace.

While Florida Republicans have consistently opposed expanding Medicaid, adjusting the eligibility criteria would help more young adults access primary and preventive care, helping to stabilize lives and households. And who can oppose gathering more information? The study could set the stage for Florida to make smarter spending choices, to intervene earlier in schools and other youth settings to offer therapeutic services and to smooth the transition for juveniles needing continuing care as adults.

The report includes other practical recommendations, like better tracking those diagnosed with a mental illness as they bounce among providers and cycle through treatment programs, schools or the criminal justice system. The panel calls for creating a centralized database to track cases as patients receive care, an essential step in avoiding duplication and determining which programs work. It calls for funding mental services based on a patient’s specific needs, and launching a pilot program in which one agency manages all public behavioral health funding in a geographic area. That could help break down silos in the bureaucracy and better tie funding to outcomes.

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These sweeping proposals give lawmakers ample opportunity to reform mental health services for the better. Florida could better help people in crisis, maximize the use of its tax dollars and create safer communities. Now this agenda needs an advocate in the Legislature.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.