The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 5, 2013

Mental health, addiction bills advance in state Senate

By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer

ST. PAUL — Sen. Kathy Sheran’s bill to get counselors in schools and Sen. Julie Rosen’s effort to reform regulation of the state’s 16 methadone clinics passed through a budget committee Friday.

Sheran’s three mental health bills will be competing for scarce human services funding, while both of Rosen’s chemical dependency bills are planned to be cost-neutral. All five bills were approved without controversy Friday morning by the state Senate’s health and human services finance committee.

First up was a bill from Rosen, a Fairmont Republican, that would allow counties to spend chemical dependency money on clients’ other needs, such as housing and employment. Problems beyond addiction — such as holding down a job and a home — often sabotage efforts at sobriety, Rosen said.

A pilot project started in 2010 has shown promise, Heather Geerts, clinical director at the Zumbro Valley Mental Health Center, told the committee. Collectively, the clients had 275 “treatment episodes” in the two years prior to entering, but have had only 33 since then.

One woman got an apartment after being committed because she was sleeping below a bridge in zero-degree weather.

The bill would expand the project in three new pilot areas around the state. Though it would loosen the criteria for chemical dependency funding, Rosen said it would not cost more money overall.

Rosen’s other bill simplifies the regulation of the state’s methadone clinics after a Duluth clinic was shut down last fall for dozens of violations. Previously, the clinics were accountable to five agencies; now, the Department of Human Services will group those standards into its licensing rules.

Both bills have House counterparts and should make their way onto the Senate floor, Rosen said. No one has testified against them in committee.

Sheran’s three mental health bills face a rockier road because they have a price tag attached.

The largest is $9.2 million to pay counselors to bring their practice into schools. Virtually every child can get to school; many fewer parents can afford to take time off work to get their child to a clinic.

The governor has also supported expanding these so-called “school-linked” mental health grants, though his appropriation is less than half of Sheran’s. As she did in a previous committee, Rosen noted that no schools in the Mankato region hosted counselors. The program works by enlisting counselors to apply for the grants, but no counselors applied in this region, Sheran said. There is a scarcity of child therapists, she said, even in cities of Mankato’s size.

Another one of her bills would expand an early-intervention program for families that are reviewed for abuse and neglect. It would benefit families that have been the target of a child abuse claim where county workers decided the level of abuse or neglect did not warrant further investigation. In other words, it aims to identify families with problems before they rise to the level of serious abuse or neglect.

It would expand the $1.75 million program to about $4 million.

Each of Sheran’s three bills has several components. Here is a sampling:

n Giving families with emotionally disturbed children some time to relax ($1 million)

n Mental health crisis services teams would assist families ($3.5 million)

n Training for teachers, police officers and others in how to deal with someone in a mental health crisis ($45,000)

All three bills were passed for “possible” inclusion in the final health and human services bill. In coming weeks, Sheran will work with party leaders in the hopes that at least some of her bills make it in the final version.