The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 7, 2013

Our View: A bipartisan effort on mental health


The Free Press

— In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shootings, buried in the hyperbolic effects of gun control or gun freedom, there initially was some talk about looking at mental health care in this country.

Finally, it appeared there would be a serious effort to address a long-neglected health concern in America, a concern that gets little attention from politicians or media -- except in a negative way.

 Sadly, rather than use this critical time for thoughtful review, national media and political leaders are positioning themselves on gun control issues which is a much easier pro-con, "them versus us" issue to debate and cover than the less sexy issue of mental health reform. Once again, tackling the "why" of a tragedy is getting lost on the "what" -- addressing the symptom rather than the cause.

 However, two lawmakers are trying to break from that herd mentality. U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, and U.S. Rep. Richard Nugent, R-Florida, have co-authored a bill that will expand funding for crisis intervention teams, mental health courts and law enforcement training. Franken said although he heard a lot of people talk about mental health after the Newtown incident, "I felt it was unfortunately just kind of a talking point."

 Nugent is taking a different tack, saying it's time to stop sending billions of dollars to foreign countries and use the money for the states to help fight against mental illness. "The federal government should not be running mental health care, but the feds should put money toward block granting states with achievable results to combat the root cause of these people killing each other," he said.

 Nugent said banning assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines is not the answer and is simply a cop-out.

 "That's a bumper sticker approach to a very serious problem," he said. Franken acknowledged that addressing the problem will cost in the short run but may save money in the long run. One area of savings would be with the criminal justice system where mental illness has not been addressed for too long.

"Our jails have become that place in which those with mental illness wait," Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said. "It's an endless cycle. We want to work with the senator to end that, to find some other options available to these folks to get them to treatment."

 Nugent said our present system of dealing with mental health issues is unfair to people with mental concerns, to law enforcement officers and to taxpayers, who end up paying for higher incarceration costs and overcrowded jails.

 This is but just a first step in addressing the inadequate mental health care system in the United States. The Obama Administration has yet to enact legislation that provides guidelines on the Wellstone parity law which ensures insurance benefits cover mental health on the same parity as other health issues.

 And there needs to be a better system of involuntary commitment, early screening and other recommendations by the New Freedom Commission on Mental Health which needs to be revisited.

 But anything now that will keep improvements to mental health care is welcomed. And the Franken-Nugent bill is a worthwhile first start.