One step forward for the mentally ill in Virginia

February 2, 2017 | By Editorial Board | The Washington Post

IT WAS a measure of the dysfunction in Virginia’s tattered services for mentally ill people that Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), even while facing a projected budget deficit that prompted him to propose an array of spending cuts, singled out mental-health care as the one major area for which he is seeking new funding this year.

In the context of Virginia’s $100 billion biennial budget, Mr. McAuliffe’s mental-health-care initiative, which amounts to about $32 million, is modest. Still, he was right to concede that the state’s network of mental-health services “is not a 21st century system.” Few officials in Richmond would disagree with that assessment, which makes it all the more remarkable that Republican lawmakers in the state Senate this week advanced a measure that would further limit the state’s already paltry housing options for those with mental illness.

Displaying odious disregard for a population for whom state resources have been stretched well past the breaking point, GOP state senators passed out of committee a bill that would block the opening of some group homeshousing the disabled or mentally ill if the inhabitants had criminal records involving harm to people or property. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (James City), said he was trying to strike a balance between his constituents, who were up in arms at the prospect of mentally ill people living in their communities, and the needs of people with disabilities who would struggle to live on their own. If so, he struck the wrong balance.

The bill emerged from a Senate committee on a party-line vote, with support only from the GOP. It may or may not survive in its current form; either way, it is a remarkable testament to official indifference in a state that has already eliminated nearly 80 percent of its beds in public psychiatric hospitals over the past four decades, and whose local and regional jails are so overburdened by mentally ill prisoners that they now make up nearly a quarter of all inmates.

In many cases, corrections officials and advocates for the mentally ill agree that jail is the wrong place for people whose infractions are often minor, and who need treatment and supervised housing options — such as group homes — rather than incarceration.

Mr. McAuliffe’s proposed new spending includes cash to help state mental hospitals hire additional security and free up oversubscribed beds, and funds to beef up staffing at 40 regional agencies around the state known as community services boards, which provide a front-line range of screening and crisis services for the mentally ill, but whose capacities are often limited, especially in rural areas.

That is a good start, but only a start, to come to terms with a responsibility that Virginia has neglected for years, and which Republicans such as Mr. Norment would continue to ignore in the name of “striking a balance.”