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Legislature prioritizes mental health care over incarceration

By Jessica Priest
June 3, 2017 at 9:51 p.m.
Updated June 4, 2017 at 6 a.m.

From left, State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst and State Rep. Geanie Morrison

From left, State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst and State Rep. Geanie Morrison

The Crossroads will compete for a portion of about $18.8 million the state recently allocated for mental health care during the next two years.

Friday, State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst announced she and State Rep. Geanie Morrison had a hand in Senate Bill 292, which requires the Health and Human Services Commission to dole out that amount specifically for projects that reduce the arrests and rearrests of people with mental illness.

"I think this is a start," Gulf Bend Center Executive Director Jeff Tunnell said. "As we get more information from the state and our legislators, we can provide more details of how (such a project) will look down the road."

Last year, Tunnell impaneled a group called the Gulf Bend Community Collaborative. The group comprises representatives from the law enforcement, medical and nonprofit community, and it conceived in October an about $10 million, four-year plan to divert people with mental illness from jails in the seven-county region.

Victoria County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Roy Boyd said he knew convincing the legislature to give the Gulf Bend Community Collaborative about $10 million was ambitious, but he thinks it was that ambition that led to the passage of SB 292.

He, Tunnell and Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor visited the Capitol countless times to stress the need to divert people with mental illness from jail to care.

SB 292 states that collaboratives serving a population of less than 250,000 - like the Gulf Bend Community Collaborative - will have to come up with a 50-percent match of whatever grant amount is awarded.

Meanwhile, collaboratives serving a population of more than 250,000 will have to come up with a 100-percent match.

It also states that 20 percent of the about $9.4 million that the Commission awards to collaboratives annually must go to those serving a population of less than 250,000.

Boyd hoped the Gulf Bend Community Collaborative would receive a grant under SB 292 to expand a mental health officer program that was started in May. It currently serves Victoria County, but he wants it to serve the seven-county region.

Boyd also envisioned using the money to train patrol officers on how to spot those in need of mental health care.

He thought what the Gulf Bend Community Collaborative had accomplished so far would give it an edge when competing with other collaboratives in the state for the money available under SB 292.

"It will prove to those who are in control of the monies that we're already putting in the effort to address this humanitarian problem," he said.

The Gulf Bend Community Collaborative is tentatively scheduled to meet June 21 to discuss the implications of SB 292's passage, Tunnell said.

Though authored by three Republican senators, the bill received bipartisan support. It was sent to the governor for signing May 28.

The Gulf Bend Community Collaborative will have to wait for the Commission to solicit grant proposals before it can submit one. It may also be too early to think about how to prove to the Commission it is meeting its goals as SB 292 requires, Tunnell said.

Some ways to prove that might be how many times a frequently incarcerated person with mental illness was incarcerated after engaging with a mental health officer or how certain calls for service decreased over time, Boyd said.

"What you'll find is that a lot of people who are suffering from a mental health crisis will end up in jail for disorderly conduct or criminal trespass," he said.

Later, Boyd added, "We want these people to have a higher quality of life, so they are productive members of society. You can't do that when you're putting them in jail for minor, nonviolent offenses. There is a better way to handle the situation."

Last month, Gulf Bend - which treats those without insurance and those on Medicaid who have severe depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia - reported that 154 people booked into Crossroads county jails had a mental illness.

To revisit the Victoria Advocate's series about gaps in mental health care in the Crossroads, click here.


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