When debate over gun control amplified after a December shooting in Connecticut, mental health services gained more attention, with some saying treatment is the key solution to preventing mass shootings.
While 15 bills on access to guns have been introduced in this General Assembly session, including a far-reaching proposal from Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), four pieces of legislation address mental health in some way.
“We have to look at both sides of the equation,” said Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. (D-Dist. 18) of Kensington, who favors increased gun control. “[Mental health care] is an important component to it.
“And I feel like this is the session that we can finally look at both sides of the picture.”
Madaleno is introducing legislation called the Mental Health Safety Net Act of 2013, a measure that would, among other objectives, create a statewide crisis response system, put mental health services in every state school, invest in housing for low-income individuals with mental illness and launch a public education initiative to improve understanding of mental illness and the resources available to treat it.
“We’ve turned a corner in the state as far as our budget outlook,” Madaleno said. “For several years we’ve had to make tough decisions about mental health care and resources for families. Hopefully, we will finally have the political will and the financial resources to start going back on some of these things.”
The bill is one of two initiatives that the Maryland Mental Health Coalition is making its top priorities this year. The other is a series of bills, sponsored by Sen. Thomas McLain Middleton (D-Dist 18) of Waldorf and Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Dist. 10) of Randallstown, that requires insurance plans to demonstrate parity between the way they cover mental health services and other services, in accordance with the federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, and gives patients more access to insurance documents and information about their rights under the law.
The coalition, made up of more than 30 organizations representing mental health professionals, patients and advocates, comes to Annapolis most years to lobby for increased funding and access to mental health services. At a Tuesday rally, advocates painted a rosy picture of this session.
“I think 2013 is going to be the year we finally get all the funding we need to continue to do the good work we’re doing,” said Sendy Rommell, CEO of Prologue, a psychiatric rehabilitation and outreach center in Baltimore and Carroll counties.
The optimism is not without reason. O’Malley’s budget includes $5.1 million in new money for substance abuse treatment, and a 2.5 percent increase in rate reimbursement for community providers of mental health services.
Some of that money has come from a 2011 increase in the alcohol tax. The tax has raised about $80 million for the general fund, most of which has gone toward health initiatives.
“We had proposed that that money go specifically to mental health, but we’re satisfied,” said Vincent DeMarco, president of the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, the advocacy group that worked for the increase. “The governor, in his budget, has put that money toward developmental disabilities, drug and alcohol treatment, mental health and other areas.”
Overall, the Mental Hygiene Administration is getting an 8 percent boost in funding, larger than that of any other administration within the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“Mental health is in the dialogue now more than ever before,” said Lea Ann Browning-McNee, deputy director of the Mental Health Association of Maryland. “People are starting to realize that this is a big part of the community puzzle we’re trying to put together in the state.”