We didn't need another reminder. Aaron Alexis gave us one anyway. When he entered the Washington, D.C., Navy Yard on Sept. 17 and murdered 12 people, Alexis brought a personal history of mental illness. And the tragedy reminded the nation, once again, that in setting and implementing health policy, it's critical we treat the mind with no less care than the body.
The Investment in Mental Health Wellness Act -- sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and enacted this year by the Legislature and governor -- reflects a commitment to that principle.
It funds a wide range of community-based mental health care for Californians in crisis Making that investment will benefit patients and families, reduce unnecessary visits to hospital emergency rooms, make our communities safer and help ease the strain on overcrowded jails and prisons.
The State Treasurer's Office, through the California Health Facilities Financing Authority (CHFFA), will play a role in implementing the act. We're excited about the opportunity to help make this important health care program a success.
Under the act, CHFFA will administer a $142.5 million grant program to fund regional and county-based mental health services in crisis situations. The act specifies the grants must fund projects that help:
CHFFA is in the process of developing urgency regulations to govern the grant application and approval process. If the regulatory process goes smoothly, CHFFA should be ready to accept applications before the end of this year and distribute grants early in 2014.
Aside from the CHFFA grant program, the act provides $54 million in state and federal funds to add at least 600 "triage personnel." These medical staff will help ensure individuals obtain medical care, specialized mental health care, alcohol or drug treatment, and social, educational and other services.
The act will reduce overutilization of hospital emergency rooms, one of its primary benefits. Roughly 20 percent of people with mental health disorders go to an emergency room at least one time a year, according to the act's legislative findings. The findings also cite reports from hospitals that about 70 percent of patients who receive psychiatric evaluations in emergency rooms could have been more appropriately treated at "a less intensive level of crisis care." The services funded by the act should help alleviate this problem, and free up hospital resources.
Too often, individuals who need mental health care wind up behind bars. The Los Angeles County jail system is the largest mental health facility in California. Of all state prison inmates, 22.7 percent have a mental health problem.
We have to do better than that. We should be providing effective treatment to those in need before they end up in jail or prison.
By strengthening crisis-level mental health care, the act will help achieve that goal, reduce law enforcement costs and relieve overcrowding in California's jails and prisons.
The act can further relieve the strain on prisons by helping to reduce recidivism -- and the attendant incarceration costs. According to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the recidivism rate among parolees with diagnosed mental health disorders ranges from 70.3 percent to 75.1 percent.
By comparison, parolees who have received comprehensive mental health services under a state program established in 2010 have recorded a recidivism rate of only 24 percent.
Both state and federal law ostensibly require parity between mental and physical health care. We've got a long way to go before reality matches the words in statute, but the Act helps us get there. That's good for our communities, our families and our children.
Bill Lockyer is California State Treasurer.