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Sandy Hook Advisory Commission: A Useful Exercise Or An Exercise in Futility?

by Jon Pelto from Wait, What

A couple of hours ago, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced that he was creating the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission, a committee of 15 members who will “explore relevant issues of gun control, school security and mental health.”

The governor named Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson to lead the committee and instructed him that an initial round of recommendations are expected no later than March 15, which would give the Governor and the General Assembly about three months to decide whether to turn any of the ideas into law before the end of the 2013 legislative session.

According to a story posted on the CTMirror website, “No other commission members were identified, but Malloy said they will include experts in education, mental health, law enforcement and emergency response. All are outside state government, but Michael Lawlor, the governor’s adviser on criminal justice issues, will staff the panel…Lawlor said the governor’s office has identified and invited the other commission members, but it is awaiting acceptances by the entire group.”

Meanwhile, yesterday, Connecticut’s Healthcare Advocate Victoria Veltri released a comprehensive report on access to mental health and substance abuse treatment services in Connecticut.

The 60 page report, entitled, “Findings and Recommendations: Access to Mental Health and Substance Use Services” began with the observation that;

“Eight years after the Report of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Mental Health, residents of Connecticut still face significant barriers to access to preventive and treatment services for mental health and substance use disorder in Connecticut. The tragedy of the mass shootings in Newtown, CT. on December 14, 2012, brings the need for such an effort into sharp relief. Health insurance coverage is not a promise of coverage. Multiple state agencies with varying eligibility requirements provide services and/or oversight for residents struggling with mental health and substance use disorders, but these efforts are not well understood or coordinated as part of an overall vision for the state.”

Let’s be clear. There is nothing wrong with a Governor bringing together a group of “experts” to “explore relevant issues of gun control, school security and mental health.”

But the juxtaposition between yesterday and today could not have been starker.

Last year, as part of Governor Malloy’s $1.5 billion tax package, income tax rates went up for Connecticut’s middle-income families, but they were frozen and did not go up for those making more than $1 million dollars – despite the huge windfall the wealthy had been receiving for a decade as a result of the Bush-Obama tax cuts.

The state’s overall lack of sufficient revenues translated into a $415 million budget deficit in this year’s budget.

As part of his effort to balance the state budget in November, Governor Malloy made the maximum allowable budget rescissions (cuts) to a number of Connecticut’s important mental health programs including Mental Health Center (a cut of $433,286), Grants for Substance Abuse Services (a cut of $1,246,477), grants for Mental Health Services (a cut of $3,823,794) and funding for Employment Opportunities for those with mental illness or substance abuse problems (a cut of $523,504).

Then a few weeks later, Malloy’s budget deficit mitigation bill, that passed the State House and State Senate, cut an additional $578,387 in funding for staff at the Department of Mental Health and Abdication Services, cut $739,682 for housing programs for clients served by the mental health agency and cut 846,304 in other managed services for those with mental health or addiction problems.

And that doesn’t even count the nearly $3 million in cuts to housing and care for children in foster care, for children in residential facilities and for individualized support programs for families with troubled children.

Had Malloy and the Democrats simply stopped coddling the super-rich and, in turn, required them to start paying their fair share in income taxes starting January 1, 2013, none of those cuts would have been necessary.

Let’s reiterate the point. Any and all efforts to develop and promote better public policies are a good idea, but the report that Connecticut’s Health Care Advocate released yesterday pointed out that there experts already know that there are proven strategies to increase support for persons with mental illness but that this governor (and previous governors) have failed to implement those vital programs.

As reported in yesterday’s CTNewsjunkie story about the report, parents at a recent public hearing on access to mental health issues “told heartbreaking stories…about their attempts to get services for their children. Their testimony showed that the state ‘has a fractured and fragmented method of delivering care that needs to be coordinated and more data driven in terms of cost effectiveness.’”

In fact, the Connecticut Healthcare Advocate’s report included eight major recommendations about techniques to improve Connecticut’s mental health and substance use systems. Those recommendations include;

1. Connecticut should adopt an overall vision for health that integrates and coordinates access to effective, timely, high quality and affordable mental health and substance use prevention and treatment services into overall healthcare

2. Connecticut’s mental health and substance use delivery system should be synchronized by n coordinating entity

3. Prevention, awareness and screening programs must be enhanced

4. Residents covered by self-funded and fully-insured plans should have access to community-based services

5. Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity must be enforced

6. The recommendations of the 12/18/12 Program Review and Investigation Committee report should be adopted in full

7. State programs must be evaluated for cost effectiveness, and should be streamlined

8. Cost shifting to the state should be evaluated and minimized.

As Connecticut’s Healthcare Advocate Veltri explained, “Now, more than ever, action is required to address the obstacles to access to treatment for and prevention of mental health and substance use conditions. Connecticut lacks an overall vision of delivery services to all of our residents.”

When one looks back over the past two days, it seems the single most important observation and recommendation went unsaid.

While a Sandy Hook Commission may make political sense and can even add to the policy debate, the sad truth is that Governor Malloy and the Legislature failed to put action behind their words when they made mental health services a target for deep and debilitating cuts.