Legacies, Lawsuits and Legislation

The Legislature has been pretty busy the past week.  House Committees have been assigned, budget hearings are under way and mental health received its long-awaited “shout-out”.

The Legacy of JFK

Our National organization noted that today marks the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s special message to Congress regarding mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities.  In it, he called for expanded mental health research, an increase in the mental health workforce, improved care in state mental hospitals and “a new type of health facility, one which will return mental health care to the main stream of American medicine, and at the same time upgrade mental health services.”  Thus was born the community mental health center.  He stressed that “prevention as well as treatment will be a major activity” of these new centers, and that they will provide “a more cordial atmosphere for [an individual’s] recovery.” Wow.

We’ve come a long way from the 3,000-patient state mental hospitals of the past, but we are still struggling with some of the very concepts JFK so boldly declared. How much do we really invest in prevention? Are we making recovery a central focus of treatment?  What would the former president think about the newer version of institutions, namely jails and prisons? I cringe at the thought.

As we reflect on and celebrate how far we’ve come in the care and treatment of people with mental illness, we must recommit to going further still.

House Committees Assigned

The Legislature is now in full swing–Speaker Straus released his House committee appointments last Thursday.  Lots of changes in committees, as over a quarter of the House members are freshmen. The Appropriations Committee has many familiar faces, with at least one notable addition–State Representative Sara Davis.  She has an interest in health and human services and, from what I can determine from previous meetings with her, does have a knowledge base of mental health and substance abuse issues.  I’m disappointed though, that in addition to Rep. Davis, there are only 2 other Houston-area representatives on this 27-member committee–Vice-Chairman Sylvester Turner and Rep. John Zerwas. Rep. Debbie Riddle was not reappointed this session. 

Perhaps we have so few Houston-area reps on Appropriations because they are all on Public Education–4 of the 11 members are from Harris County.  At least 3 of them have been advocates for mental health and/or substance abuse issues, so I’m hoping some of our teacher training legislation will do well in this committee.  Public Health had a little shake-up, but institutional knowledge was preserved with the reappointment of Chairwoman Lois Kolkhorst, Vice-Chair Elliott Naishtat, and long-time member Rep. Garnet Coleman. Criminal Jurisprudence only has one survivor from last session’s committee–Rep. Stefani Carter–so it’s anyone’s guess how amenable the committee will be to Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity statute changes and similar legislation.  Far more committees than I have time to dissect–what are your thoughts?

Budget Hearings

Now that the House Appropriations Committee has been appointed, members are hard at work resolving Texas’ budget issues.  This week the committee is looking at the supplementary bill to take care of the hole in the current budget.  Next week they will start looking at the budget for the upcoming biennium.  This means another opportunity for advocates to deliver testimony on mental health and substance abuse funding needs.  Stay tuned for more details!

Post-State of the State Shout-Out

In response to Governor Perry’s State of the State Address, the Texas House and Senate Democratic Caucuses issued a joint statement laying out their priorities for the 83rd Legislative Session.  We finally received the long-awaited shout-out of the session, as one of their priorities is to “strengthen the mental health system to adequately serve people in need.”  Hip hip hooray!  Hopefully this priority translates into reality this session.


Yesterday, State District Judge John Dietz declared that the Texas school finance system is unconstitutional…again.  While some behavioral health advocates may think this is not “our” issue, we must remember that a sizable percentage of the 25,000-plus public school jobs that were lost last school year were professional support staff such as counselors.  I think most of us can agree that we need more, not less, of these important positions in our schools.  Let’s hope that the Legislature makes the right decision and moves quickly to adequately fund our public schools.

Bills, Bills, Bills

As of Monday, February 4, over 1,600 bills have been filed during the 83rd Legislative Session.  Mental health and substance abuse bills of interest include:

HB 838 by Zerwas, which requires that a person consenting to the use of a psychotropic medication for a foster child ensure the child has an office visit with the prescribing physician at least every 90 days to monitor the effects of the drug and whether or not it is meeting prescribed treatment goals;

SB 278 by Watson, which requires that alcohol awareness programs for middle, junior high and high school students be taught as part of the school science curriculum (as opposed to the current health curriculum); and

SB 337 by Rodriguez, which requires Medicaid Managed Care Organizations to coordinate care with community centers and local mental health and mental retardation authorities for their clients who are also served by those entities.

For a more in-depth look at behavioral health legislation and to see MHA Houston’s position on these bills, click here.

Ta ta for now!


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