About Bill Kelly via Erika Lyles

Bill Kelly Director, Public Policy and Government Affairs bkelly@mhahouston.org

Minding Houston XVII: Parity Disparity

With all the issues surrounding mental health, perhaps none has a bigger impact than parity. But parity also happens to be one of the hardest to understand and hardest to implement. In this episode, we will look at the legislative history of parity, current problems with enforcement, and a new ruling that impacts parity across the country. Insurance parity for behavioral health coverage makes providing behavioral health services possible and it is impossible to improve access without it.

This is Minding Houston, I’m Bill Kelly.

When we talk about parity, we need to talk a little political history. The Houston Chronicle’s Jenny Deam wrote about the situation regarding parity and its roots in federal legislation, and she sums it up nicely:


“President George W. Bush signed a law requiring any insurance policy that included mental health treatment to be equal in coverage to medical treatment, in an effort to stop the long-standing practice of charging higher co-pays for mental health care, limiting treatment or denying it outright. It was cheered as a triumph for the nation’s millions with mental illness.

The measure was further strengthened in 2010 with the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which extended federal parity requirements to individual and small-group plans and mandated mental health and substance abuse be covered in any plan sold on the federal marketplace or state exchanges.

But the lofty goal of equality has fallen far short of its promise, providers, patients and policy experts say.”

So with federal legislation passed, what’s the problem? Parity is the law of the land, why isn’t it the standard practice of providers? Well, as Ben Franklin once said, “”Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are,” which I think was his way of stirring up those of us who care about behavioral health coverage. Deam’s article continues:

“In fact, certain managed care groups are well known within the Houston behavioral care community of having a “predictably higher rate of denials” and a “higher hassle factor,” says Dr. George Santos, chief medical officer and executive medical director at Houston Behavioral Hospital. “They hide behind statements like, ‘We are not telling you what to do.’ But I have had many instances where these physicians will make specific treatment recommendations regarding medications and doses. They will certainly say a patient no longer needs inpatient care and will deny approval.”

Take Dr. Richard Noel, medical director at IntraCare North, a Houston psychiatric facility. He spends hours each week on the phone arguing with doctors paid by insurance companies who have never seen his patients. He says he now has to prove that medications for inpatient children and teens are being adjusted every few days – often before the drugs have had a chance to work – or insurers will no longer cover a hospital stay. He says he has had issues with nearly all of the major insurance companies.”

What are the consequences when parity for behavioral health isn’t enforced with providers? Well, I would refer to statements made by Dr. William Streusand, an adolescent child psychiatrist at the Texas A&M Health Science center. He testified in front of the House Select Committee on Mental Health on March 22nd and answered the following question from Rep. Greg Bonnen, also a physician:

Bonnen: “You don’t take private insurance in your practice, why is that?”

Streusand: “I don’t have to.”

Bonnen: “Well, okay, could you elaborate on why you wouldn’t have to?”

Streusand: “Yeah, like I said it is a seller’s market.”

While that is true, what else is true, as followers of Minding Houston well know, is Texas has a scarcity of providers. How bad is the situation and how does it affect parity? From the Chronicle article:

“Texas ranks 47th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in access to mental health care, and 50th in the number of mental health providers with only one for every 1,757 in the state, according to a study by Mental Health America. By contrast, Massachusetts, which ranks first, has one provider for every 248 people.

“They flat out tell me, ‘We don’t take insurance anymore because we have too much trouble getting paid,’ ” says Carrie Stowell, a single mother whose 16-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety. She lives in Conroe and found 10 doctors in a 40-mile radius who treat adolescents, but only one is taking new patients or is in her plan. The wait for an appointment is six months.

Santos also feels the shortage. “It is extremely difficult to recruit a physician willing to work at an inpatient setting because of insurance,” he says.”

Because of poor parity enforcement, Texas finds itself in a situation where access to care is being limited not only to the number of providers but the number of providers that take insurance. Having a “cash only” payment model for behavioral health is a dangerous trend for Texas and can be one of the most limiting factors in the provision of care. Texas has too many people needing services to be a “seller’s market.” It is time to make some changes.

So how can this parity enforcement problem be addressed? Based on his experience as a prosecutor and his observations of the mental health needs of so many in the criminal justice system, Congressman Joe Kennedy III has a plan that he believes can help enforce the parity laws on the books. We talked with the Congressman about his Behavioral Health Coverage & Treatment Act last week:

BK & Kennedy

Bill Kelly and Congressman Joe Kennedy III

Kelly: I’m here today with Congressman Kennedy. Congressman, thank you so much for joining us. In December you filed your Behavioral Health Coverage and Transparency Act and, unlike in Texas where we face large problems due to our large uninsured population, this act primarily goes after folks with insurance looking to access services. What particular aspect really raised this on your radar screen?

Kennedy: So, I’ve been diving into issues around mental health now for a while, since I came into office and, actually, really beforehand. Before I ended up running for office, my first campaign, I was a prosecutor. I cannot tell you how many cases came across my desk from the district courts, lower courts, criminal courts in Massachusetts for folks struggling with either mental illness, substance abuse, drug abuse, or alcoholism and my boss at that point, a Republican DA,  said, “Your job is to make sure that person never commits another crime.”

And some folks are bad people and you lock them up for a long time. For others suffering from mental illness or substance abuse, the way you can do that is to treat the underlying condition. It doesn’t matter if you lock them up for three months if they are not able to get treatment for their mental illness or get clean off of a heroin addiction.

So use the tools that you have in your tool kit to help address the underlying concern. As a prosecutor, there are some tools we got; there’s a lot that we don’t and from my perspective trying a bunch of drug cases and working with a lot of drug cases, I became convinced that the way to ensure that those files that were people’s lives on my desk, the way to actually address them much further upstream is to focus on prevention and treatment rather than on prosecution.

The question then becomes how do we make sure there is access to mental health care throughout our society? And as we start peeling back the layers on this, from my perspective on it, there are two main segments. There is the public side of things where folks get their healthcare from the federal government, Medicaid primarily. Medicaid is, of course, the largest payer of mental health care services in the country. Then there is, of course, the private side doing private insurance. We’ve started by looking at the private side marketplace.

What this bill’s focus is to say, look, the combination of mental health parity, which is a simple law that has helped expand coverage, but it’s the combination of mental health parity and the Affordable Care Act that actually said as an essential health benefit in order to participate in these exchanges, you have to actually cover mental health care. So we have the combination of the Mental Health Parity Act, which says we have to treat mental health care like we do physical health care, and then the Affordable Care Act, which says you have to now cover mental health care. That leads to a huge expansion in coverage for states, particularly those who took the Medicaid expansion, which not all states did.

The challenge though is that the marketplaces still are not functioning so we still hear cases all over the country that say “I don’t need to take insurance,” because there are so many people that are in need of care and so few doctors that the doctors are essentially empowered to say “I can cherry pick my clients, I can make sure to get rates that are higher that other insurance companies will reimburse me for and I’ll just be an all-cash doctor.”

The problem with this is that you can’t just create more doctors overnight. So there are systemic issues that are affecting our ability in this country to have patients that are suffering from mental illness to actually access mental health they need. One other step for you: according to one study I saw recently 55% of the counties across our country do not have a single practicing psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker, 55% of the counties across our country!

So when we start talking about trying to get access to care, insurance is an important part to this, but we have to make sure you can actually get a doctor and stay treated. So the bill that we filed is a first step in trying to basically force insurance companies to divulge information around how they are actually covering mental health care. As you know, there are many people that are suffering from mental illness who get their insurance claims denied at a much higher rate than those suffering from typical, physical maladies such as a broken leg or a broken arm. So this bill will hopefully shine a light on some of those practices and force insurance companies to actually make this transition to focus on prevention and treatment, rather than triage at the back end of mental health.

Kelly: And you mention that this bill, it doesn’t put forth any new regulations as much as it focuses on transparency the for given laws that you mentioned with parity and the ACA.

Kennedy: Absolutely. Part of the way we crafted this is to say, look we are not trying to add any additional burden to these insurance companies, but disclose the methodology at which you end up making your decisions and make sure that information is available and digestible to regulators so we can actually start to shine a light on this and ask are things actually going as they should – which case there might be something else that needs to be done – or are they not?

And the idea behind this bill is that if insurance companies can essentially get away with not covering people at the back end when they are in need of mental health care, then there is essentially no reason for them to make the investment they need to actually force the focus of treatment to move up that scale to prevention and treatment rather than just focusing on the back end for folks that end up in a crisis point.

So what we want to do is try to take a step back and say how are we going to address access to mental health care in the system? It needs a full-on continuum of care adjustment. We need the private sector to play a role in that and I think a critical piece to it is by getting insurance companies to not just focus on the back end, the really expensive cases of triage after you’re becoming the victim of mental illness, but to focus on treatment and prevention on the front end. How do we flesh that out? We make sure that you are actually abiding by the terms of the regulation that are already in place.

Kelly: When you talk about the regulations that are already in place, one of the things that make mental health and behavioral health a very bipartisan issue is that people in a very partisan health care landscape, have been really willing to come together. You’ve seen bills move both in the House and the Senate. Do you see your bill possibly being able to hitch onto one of these bills that seem to be making some headway down the track?

Kennedy: Absolutely hope so. This is something that I think Democrats and Republicans agree on, that our mental health system is in crisis. Whether it was folks in Congress that have had similar experiences to me as prosecutors saying this is a real problem, whether you see it in emergency rooms because you have some doctors in Congress, or you are a member in Congress involved in trying to help our access to health care period.

And if you go around even hospitals in Massachusetts it’s one of the things you will hear about in emergency departments is there are a lot of people in their EDs suffering from mental illness. So we hear about this all the time; the question is how do we go about addressing it, again in that full-on continuum of care model? I hope that this legislation will address this, either as a standalone or perhaps as an amendment to one of those other pieces of legislation that we have been working hard on. We have been working with some of our colleagues on it and they have been doing a really good job. There is also a really tricky issue on how to make these reforms across the entire system and some of my colleagues and I are trying to dive into this so hopefully we will get there.

Kelly: Well, thank you, Congressman so much for your time today and for your work on this really important issue that I hope gets the traction that it needs. Like you said, this is a critical first step to ensuring that those with private coverage get the help that they need.

Kennedy. Thank you for your time too, Bill.

As the Congressman mentioned, the largest payer of behavioral health services in the country is Medicaid. And a recent announcement by the Department of Health and Human Services is good news for increasing access.

On March 29th, the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (often referred to as CMS) announced the new rule in coordination with President Obama’s visit to the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit. From the press release:


” . . . the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) today finalized a rule to strengthen access to mental health and substance use services for people with Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) coverage, aligning with protections already required of private health plans. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 generally requires that health insurance plans treat mental health and substance use disorder benefits on equal footing as medical and surgical benefits.

“The Affordable Care Act provided one of the largest expansions of mental health and substance use disorder coverage in a generation,” HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell said. “Today’s rule eliminates a barrier to coverage for the millions of Americans who for too long faced a system that treated behavioral health as an unequal priority. It represents a critical step in our effort to ensure that everyone has access to the care they need.

“This rule will also increase access to evidence-based treatment to help more people get the help they need for their recovery and is critical in our comprehensive approach to addressing the serious opioid epidemic facing our nation.”

“The need to strengthen access to mental health and substance use disorder services is clear,” said Vikki Wachino, Deputy Administrator of CMS and Director of the Center for Medicaid and CHIP Services. “This final rule will help states strengthen care delivery and support low-income individuals in accessing the services and treatment they need to be healthy.”

The protections set forth in this final rule will benefit the over 23 million people enrolled in Medicaid managed care organizations (MCOs), Medicaid alternative benefit plans (ABPs), and CHIP.

A link to the press release and the finalized rule can be found here

Overall, our goal at MHA of Greater Houston has been to make the provision of behavioral healthcare a successful business model. After all, if people want to access services, there needs to be providers available to treat them. Parity can help provide the basic regulatory functions under which providers can be paid in a timely manner for their services. And it is already the law . . .

Parity will continue to be a big issue at the state and national level. We look forward to continuing to work with our elected leaders in Austin and Washington to make sure parity coverage is enforced. Without this level playing field, progress in mental health care access continues to be an uphill battle.

This has been Minding Houston, I’m Bill Kelly.


Music for this Episode: “Hotel Rodeo”, “Quisling”, and Bricolage” by Anitek and “Vacate the Premises” by Deadly Combo

Minding Houston XVI: Capacity Questions Answered


Whenever the topic of mental health is discussed, one of the most repeated solutions is to increase capacity, usually in the common phrase, “we need more beds.” But do people really have the facts on what the bed capacity issues are for Harris County, and how does that play into what bed capacity issues face the state? Today, we talk to a leader for Harris County’s inpatient mental health hospital to get very specific on capacity issues.

This is Minding Houston, I’m Bill Kelly

Sgt. Joe Friday should have taught public policy. His “just the facts” line is one of my favorites and carries the objective tone of trying to boil down a problem to its core. So it is in that Dragnet spirit that I hope you don’t mind if we focus on a few graphs and numbers to get the story on capacity for state psychiatric beds.

DSHS Graph - Bed Capacity

The Texas Department of State Health Services has often presented the above slide in talking about the number of publicly funded beds available in the Texas State Hospital system. The graph shows two sets of numbers: first, the state hospital psychiatric beds represented with the light blue line, and secondly state funded (or private) psych beds represented by a red line. The black line at the top shows the sum of these two numbers and the overall trend in patient capacity for the state.

What’s apparent from this graph are two things which are important to note when looking at future trends regarding capacity options:

First, the number of state-owned beds has largely flat-lined since 2006, which shows that despite recent investments at the state level, Texas has not increased inpatient capacity for state-owned beds.

Secondly, the number of state-funded, private beds has more than doubled during that same time period, moving close to 20% of the state bed capacity total.

Clearly, the preferred option to increasing state bed capacity has been to buy, rather than build.

However, one number is not included in this data set that is the most important in answering what the real situation is with regards to the capacity of inpatient beds in Texas, and that’s population. Anyone who is living in Texas knows the explosive population growth seen in the past two decades, and in order to get the whole picture, the number of Texans needs to be accounted for in this data.

In a presentation to the Senate Finance Committee on January 15th, Assistant Commissioner Lauren Lacefield Lewis presented the following slide that tracks the total number of state beds to state population, and the numbers are not encouraging:

DSHS - Capacity Rate

From the graph, you can see that Texas is currently at the lowest ratio of beds to population since 1994. So in talking about what the psychiatric bed capacity for Texas is, we are starting from the lowest point based on population.

But aside from just the overall population, there’s another factor putting added pressure on the number of psych beds available for Texans: the criminal justice system. In the same presentation to Senate Finance, Mrs. Lewis showed the following slide that confirms a trend that first reached a tipping point in 2014. That trend is that more people are admitted to the Texas State Hospital system through forensic commitments than civil.

DSHS - Commitments

2014 marked the first year that more people entered the state hospital through the criminal justice system (a forensic commitment) than were voluntarily committed (civil commitment). And the trend has continued in 2015 and 2016.

This is a dangerous situation, as the public safety of Texans is now using up resources designed to make sure Texans have access to mental health beds. And the consequences are already showing up in real world situations right here in Harris County.


According to a March 4th Edition of the Houston Chronicle, the number of beds for forensic commitments were supposed to take up a third of the Texas State Hospital system but have instead become a majority.

The case of Shannon Miles, who stands accused of the murder of Harris County Sheriff’s Deputy Darren Goforth last August, has had more than its share of strange twists and turns. The case also has highlighted yet another problem with how the state deals with the mentally ill among us.

To review, Goforth was shot 15 times as he walked to his patrol car at a gas station. Sheriff’s deputies within a day arrested Miles, who has a history of mental illness. On Feb. 9, he was found mentally incompetent to stand trial after experts agreed he suffers from schizophrenia, and he was ordered to Vernon State Mental Hospital in North Texas. There he would receive a 120-day mental evaluation to determine whether so-called competency restoration is possible. As of this writing, he’s still in the Harris County Jail – the state’s largest de facto mental health facility, by the way – because some 60 other Harris County inmates are in line to go to Vernon ahead of him.

In 2012, a Travis County judge ruled that defendants requiring a forensic bed at a state mental hospital couldn’t be made to wait in jail for more than three weeks. Forensic beds are the spaces set aside for defendants, like Miles, who need psychiatric treatment to get well enough to stand trial. As Emily DePrang reported in the Texas Observer in 2014, they’ve had to wait in recent years for an average of six months.

Long waits are still the rule, despite the judge’s ruling, because Texas has less than 2,500 beds at its 10 state mental hospitals; less than a third of those are designated for forensic commitments. The cruel irony is that every bed used by someone from a jail is one less bed available for people who have committed no crime.

The wait list for the state hospital is another example of the lack of access for mental health owing to a capacity for treatment. The bottleneck for violent offenders at the Vernon State Hospital is just one example.

Houston Matters

Another example is the overall number of people who are dependent on the public mental health system. Recently, our favorite radio program Houston Matters had me on to talk about the need for crisis clinics while highlighting a new walk-in clinic opened in Meyerland by Memorial Hermann. Houston Public Media has done an extraordinary job when it comes to highlighting mental health, which I think is evident from the questions asked by Houston Public Media’s Craig Cohen. Here’s the part of our interview focusing on the need for services:

Craig Cohen: Bill Kelly, we do tend to think of the need for 24/7 physical health emergency care. Is it something that we tend to forget or not take seriously that there is a need for 24/7 – particularly in the overnight hours – emergency mental health care?

Bill Kelly: Well, I would just point to the overall numbers and then when you look at the gap in coverage and access it really emphasizes the need to invest in them. And according to our State Health and Human Services Commission, we have about half a million Texas adults that suffer from a severe and persistent mental illness. Now severe mental illness results in a serious functional impairment which substantially interferes or limits one or more major life activities. When you add the “persistent” that means that those symptoms have lasted over a year. So if you have half a million adults that breaks down in Harris County to right at 150,000 adults. Now, we know from our Mental Health Needs Council assessment that about 90,000 of that 150,000 have no access to public or private insurance. So the very systems that Memorial Hermann and other partners with the 1115 waiver are trying to build out are badly needed for this group. Like Theresa said, if people do not get the medical services that they need and the mental health care that they need, their safety net all too often is emergency rooms that are already crowded and a system that has a coverage gap or, unfortunately, our criminal justice system.

The capacity question here in Harris County is one that should draw attention. Having such a scarcity of access will place an inordinate demand on existing resources. The relief provided by the expanded footprint of behavioral health from the 1115 Waiver’s DSRIP projects, such as this crisis clinic, should be viewed as vital. We cannot afford to lose these new programs when the waiver expires later in 2016.

Fortunately, we have a resource locally that helps with the inpatient capacity that makes Harris County the envy of other places in Texas. I sat down with Stephen Glazier, Chief Operating Officer of the Harris County Psychiatric Center, or HCPC, to talk about the role his facility plays in helping provide capacity right here in Harris County:

GlazierBill Kelly: I’m here at the Harris County Psychiatric Center (HCPC) with Steve Glazier. Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with us today. I wanted to first go through and describe the mission and capacity here at HCPC and how it really fits into the behavioral health network of providers here in Houston.

Steve Glazier: So HCPC is primarily a short-term acute care psychiatric hospital. We do have a few units that are designed for patients that stay a little bit longer, three or four or five weeks, but the majority of beds are short term acute care which means the patients stay roughly seven to eight days. We are a 276 bed hospital. Currently, we are renovating units; we are going to have our 30th birthday in the fall and 30 years of 8,000 admissions a year. It’s time to do some renovations. So not only are we making the units nicer, we’ve been able to redesign them in a way that also makes them safer, it makes them more therapeutic. So we are keeping one unit closed, we will renovate it and move units in and then we go to renovate the next one so we are operating 250 beds right now. We are the second largest academic psychiatric hospital in the country and we stay functionally full all the time. What I mean by functionally full is if we have an empty bed, it only means that the patient that has been assigned to that bed hasn’t arrived here yet. Every morning we start the day with a list of anywhere from 30 to 45 patients waiting to come in. Most days we are able to find everyone a bed the same day. We get the same number of discharges in a day, but we stay very busy and functionally full all the time. Houston-Harris County has very, very few civil commitments to the state hospitals anymore, so HCPC essentially fills that role for this area as well.HCPCUT

Kelly: And you mentioned being one of the second largest in the nation with regards to academics so to be clear, who funds HCPC?

Glazier: The majority of the beds and the patient days are funded by the state, out of state general revenue. A smaller portion is funded by the county and then also a small portion are funded – we have a few beds that are available for patients with third-party funding, so another small portion is third-party funding. Most of our funding comes from the Harris Center, through our contract with the Harris Center. We do have one contract that is direct with the county with the juvenile probation department so we have one unit that is set aside specifically for adolescents from the juvenile detention center, but the majority of our funding comes from state general revenue.

Kelly: And with that, what’s probably the biggest challenge that you face here at HCPC in order to really carry out your mission?

Glazier: One of the biggest challenges is trying to do our very best with the beds we have to accommodate all the demand for admissions that we have. We take very seriously our role to try to make sure that patients that are in emergency rooms and in hospitals around the medical center, patients that have been court ordered into treatment, patients that are coming in from the neuropsychiatric center that the Harris Center runs, that when we get requests that we are able to get those patients transported here and admitted as quickly as possible. But trying to balance that with trying to manage the patients and treat the patients that are here as thoroughly as possible is a real challenge; it’s a balancing act. We don’t want to push patients out early just to make a bed for someone else who is waiting. On the same token, I don’t want patients to be waiting inordinately long times in an emergency room or a psychiatric center. So trying to manage that queue, that waiting list, can be a real challenge.

Kelly: And on that exact challenge, taking it to the state-wide level, you’re in a position to be able to look at the way the state of Texas delivers a lot of that care. Do you want to talk a little bit about that position, some of the thoughts you bring with your experience at HCPC to that council?

Glazier: One of the difficulties that we have right now, and it’s worse in certain parts of the state, is there are some patients that need longer term care than just short-term acute care, than just a week. And it’s very difficult sometimes to get a civil commitment to a state hospital where a patient can stay longer and get the treatment they need. That is something that we have to figure out because the lack of those types of beds, not only those but also the lack of residential treatment beds for adults which is another low level of care, the lack of supportive housing beds, the lack of a continuum of beds from longer term acute care to shorter-term acute care to residential to supportive housing is what is causing this constant recidivism of some of our patients and is also part of what is causing this huge number of psychiatric patients who are in the Harris County jail. The Harris County jail is commonly said to be the largest psychiatric institute in the state. In fact, the Harris County jail on any given day has more psychiatric patients that it is housing than in all of the state hospitals combined in the state of Texas. Part of the reason for that is that there are some gaps in our treatment system that if we could fill those, if we had better places that had some treatment of care to discharge someone from HCPC into, and also had sufficient case management services to surround them with, we could eliminate a lot of those recidivists and a lot of those patients who end up in jail.

Kelly: Well, thank you for your time. I know all of you are busy doing so many things so thank you so much for taking some time to be with us.


The Harris County Psychiatric Center has helped thousands of Harris County residents, and yet we know thousands more needs services. Capacity, especially for inpatient mental health services, is a challenge for all of Texans.

There are many issues to be brought up during the interim, and we look forward to hearing more from Chairman Four Price’s Select Committee on Mental Health. We hope this look at capacity has shown how statewide policy must address the ability for those seeking inpatient care to find it, and the consequences of a lack of investment in access.

This is Minding Houston, I’m Bill Kelly.


Music: “Clear Your Head” by Cory Gray and back beats by Frank Nora

Minding Houston XV: Workforce Shortage? We have an app for that!

Welcome to the first Episode of Minding Houston for 2016. While it has been a while since we last spoke, we’ve been holding off as this episode isn’t just about policy discussions, it’s about results. And we need your help to get the word out about a program critical to the future workforce of Texas.

This is Minding Houston, I’m Bill Kelly

Astute listeners to this blog know that we have talked a lot about the mental health workforce being a big obstacle to access. In fact, we devoted a whole episode to it last February (See: Minding Houston IV), and almost a year to the day later, we are happy to announce the state of Texas is taking applications.

Senate Bill 239 by Senator Charles Schwertner creates the Mental Health Loan Repayment Assistance Program and is funded with almost $3 million. Details of the plan are shared below. The most encouraging aspect of the legislation (now law) is the recognition that it isn’t not just a lack of medical physicians, but the full spectrum of mental health providers are sorely needed to treat Texans.

LR slide
While in Austin talking about the lead up to the February 8th application launch, I was able to sit down with one of the leading voices for health care in Texas, Stacy Wilson of the Texas Hospital Association, to talk about the importance of this program:


StacyWilson and THA

Bill Kelly: Here with Stacy Wilson of the Texas Hospital Association. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Stacy Wilson: It’s a pleasure.
Kelly: We are talking about SB 239 and the specific loan repayment mental health professions bill. Who should really be looking at taking advantage of these monies.

Wilson: There are five groups of mental health professionals that are targeted under the bill: psychiatrists, psychologists, APRNs who have specialized training in mental health, licensed professional counselors, licensed clinical social workers.

Kelly: And I know we are big fans of the inclusion of social workers, especially in Houston, on it. When we talk about the monies that are available – and I know there is some restriction on exactly how many of each group can be included on that – what do people need to watch out for if they are interested in pursuing a degree in one of these fields?

Wilson: Well the great thing is that now we have included this beyond just physicians as you mentioned, but there are requirements around serving the CHIP and/or Medicaid populations and/or working in a state prison. So there are some certification requirements that you have to do, there is an application you have to fill out and at the end of each year in order to be eligible, you have to certify that you actually served that population and that you’ve met the other requirements.

Kelly: And we are going to be posting a link to information from the college coordinating board on our website, but what are some of the deadlines for people who would be applying for this for some of their graduate education?

Wilson: So what we’ve heard from the higher education coordinating board is that the applications will be available around February [8] and that they will probably be due around April 30. So there is a specific website that links to this as you have mentioned and those dates are a little flexible but obviously beginning February [8] you should start looking for them.

Kelly: And as we talk to different advocacy groups around our area, how important is this to get the message out about our workforce for behavioral health?

Wilson: It’s imperative. We can ask for all the services we want to ask and more impatient beds and outpatient services but unless you have that dedicated workforce, it doesn’t mean anything. So it is the backbone of everything else that we do

Kelly: Staci, thank you so much for joining us.

Wilson: Thank you so much

So, now here’s our deliverable. You will find a link to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s application for this program here. Now, we need you, the loyal listeners and mental health care advocates, to help get the message out by forwarding this information on to a number of audiences that need to hear it.

People we are targeting including undergraduate students looking to pursue a degree in one of the above-mentioned fields, current students already pursuing a graduate degree, college faculty or administrators, or anyone else who cares about access to mental health services.

Forward this message or cut and paste the URL for this blog to help us share this information. Our goal is to have as many people as possible help us spread the word about this new program. Texas deserves a workforce to help treat people suffering from a mental illness, and by getting the word out, you are doing your part to help make that happen.

Just as one of the newest mental health programs is rolling out, the Legislative focus is starting to heat up. On January 26th, the Senate Finance Committee, the budget crafting body for the upper chamber in the Texas Legislature, met to discuss two primary budget issues.

First, and what took up all of the media attention, was “Discussion on the Impact of Oil Prices and Production on State Revenue and the Budget” with Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar testifying. Clearly, this was an important conversation to have, but for this session, it really boiled down to two numbers:

From the Texas Tribune:


Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Tuesday faced some skepticism as he sought to soothe lawmakers’ fears about what plummeting oil prices mean for the state’s bottom line.
“Is the sky falling?” asked Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Finance, which helps write the state budget.

“No, sir,” Hegar replied, adding that while there are “clouds on the horizon,” he’d rather be in Texas than in any other state.

“I just don’t want to live in a state of denial,” West responded.


Though Hegar has noted that oil’s plunge means Texas will send hundreds of millions fewer dollars toward road construction and maintenance than originally expected, the drilling slowdown should not leave lawmakers with a revenue shortfall, he said.

In fact, much of the certified revenue estimate Hegar released in October has stayed accurate — even though it was based on significantly higher oil prices — because producers are pumping more oil than anyone expected, Hegar said.

“The budget you passed – it works, and it will continue to work,” Hegar said, noting that lawmakers also left a significant cushion of unallocated funds.

That wiggle room totals about $4 billion, said Ursula Parks, director of the Legislative Budget Board.

There’s the number: a current $4 billion surplus of unspent funds available for the 2016-2017 session. Hegar’s assessment that despite the fall in oil prices that “the sky is not falling” is a very insightful remark. Especially in view of the second number.
According to testimony given by Comptroller Hegar on January 26th, the state has $9.6 billion in the Economic Stabilization Fund, commonly referred to as the state’s “Rainy Day Fund.” Given that the two-year total, or biennium budget, for the state was set at $209.4 billion, having almost $10 billion in the bank is a good position to be in, but should Texas not be spending some of that on needed programs?
The Pew Charitable Trusts released a report on January 19th describing how state’s save money in rainy day accounts and takes a special notice of Texas. Here’s what Pew writes about how Texas has decided to move on this issue:
Pew Trust log

Given the state’s other pressing budgetary priorities— particularly the need for improved water and transportation infrastructure and a desire to reduce the state’s total amount of outstanding debt—Texas lawmakers have been divided over whether the current level of reserves is sufficient or excessive.
At the heart of this debate lies a basic disagreement over the intended purpose of the Economic Stabilization Fund. “It’s become a surprisingly emotional issue in the political debate,” said Dale Craymer, president of the nonprofit Texas Taxpayers and Research Association and a former legislative aide who helped House leaders draft the 1987 constitutional amendment that created the fund. “The last two sessions, the rainy day fund has taken on this sacred nature that was never really intended. It was intended as a management tool.”
As revenue and spending pressures shift along with the booms and busts of the economy, states stand to benefit from the additional flexibility provided by robust rainy day funds to smooth over unexpected bumps in the road. Despite having billions of dollars in its rainy day fund, Texas struggles to answer the question of how much is enough because the state lacks a clear consensus on why the fund exists in the first place. Absent a clear purpose for saving, other states also find it extremely difficult to set a meaningful savings target, which can confound their efforts to manage the budgetary ups and downs of economic activity.

View Report: Pew Charitable Trusts – Why States Save


jane nelson

Senator Jane Nelson

While the Legislature deals with those numbers, one thing is clear: there is no need to cut services, especially for newly expanded behavioral health access. The Comptroller was clear in his assessment, and we hope lawmakers continue their investments in better access and quality of services, no matter what the cost of a barrel of oil.

The second part of the meeting, after all the media attention on oil prices left, was on behavioral health funding. Chair Jane Nelson was distressed about inaccurate news reports about how much Texas was spending on behavioral health.
As followers of Minding Houston, you should know all of our numbers come from the Legislative Budget Board, the same body that testified before Senate Finance. A link to their presentation is below, and as someone who has worked for a member of the House Appropriations Committee, these are the numbers I use when looking at state expenditures.

To give a recap of the presentation, the most informative slide is pictured below in what was the main point of the budget conversation: Texas spends about $3.6 billion in a biennium on behavioral health services across 18 agencies in 5 separate articles of the state budget. And as Chair Nelson repeatedly (and very rightly) points out, that total does not include Medicaid expenditures. See the slide below for a good breakdown:

BH Slide

With everyone on the same page with regards to the numbers (again, minus Medicaid), the Finance Committee expressed concern regarding the ability to coordinate spending and break down silos among various state agencies.
This is where Sonja Gaines steps in. As the Associate Commissioner for the Office of Mental Health Coordination for the Health & Human Services Commission, not only does she have a long job title, but a long list of programs to oversee and make work together.

A good example of how programs are being integrated came from Sean Hanna, Director of the Military Veteran Peer Network. He testified that after meeting with Gaines, this agency had begun to better coordinate with existing state resources of the Texas State Guard. This has greatly expanded the network of mental health peers working with our state’s armed services by maximizing existing resources.

The presentation notes that the statewide coordinating council should be developing a coordinated expenditure proposal for fiscal year 2017, and that as state budget writers, Chair Nelson will make sure any exceptional items match up within those plans.
The Health and Human Services Commission will submit that proposal to the Legislative Budget Board on June 1st of 2016.

Lastly, I wanted to mention that the new House Select Committee on Mental Health will be holding their first hearing on February 18th. We are looking forward to seeing what direction Chairman Four Price of Amarillo takes in the initial hearing.


photo series

Chairman Price, Rep. Thompson, Rep. Davis, Rep. Coleman

As a quick reminder, our Harris County members on this committee include Representatives Senfronia Thompson, Garnet Coleman, and Sarah Davis.

As the Legislature starts to dig into policy and resources, be sure to stay tuned to Minding Houston for the latest information on how mental health policy discussions translate to better access and services in Houston.

This has been Minding Houston, I’m Bill Kelly.



Music in this episode: “Viper” by Ray Rude, “True Hearts” by Nick Jaina, and “Fly Drexler” by Lazlo Supreme

Minding Houston XIV: Select Committee & Mayor Parker Interview

This November, one of the biggest moves for mental health policies happened in Austin. It wasn’t an election and there weren’t a lot of politicians present. But the leader of the Texas House, Speaker Joe Straus, has made sure that mental health will get more than its fair share of attention during the next legislative session.

And with the final month of her administration coming to an end, Mayor Parker talks about the shift in city policy when it comes to substance use and why funding the Mental Health Division in HPD is a must for city leaders.

It is all about leadership and focus. For December 2015, this is Minding Houston. I’m Bill Kelly.

The State of Texas has challenges regarding how much and frankly how little is invested in public mental health systems. The November 10th edition of the Houston Chronicle explains:


Texas spends less per capita on mental health care than all but a couple states in the nation. Seventy percent of the counties here do not have a single practicing psychiatrist. Forty percent of children experiencing emotional, developmental or behavioral problems do not get any help. And the state’s biggest provider of treatment is the Harris County Jail.

Fair to say, there is work to be done. And while many leaders have found it convenient to not to focus on this issue, Speaker of the Texas House Joe Straus has decided to take a look at the public mental health system head on. The Chronicle continues:

Now, lawmakers are making their most deliberate effort in two decades to address the problems. House Speaker Joe Straus on Monday formed a special committee to “take a wide-ranging look at the state’s behavioral health system for children and adults.”
The House Select Committee on Mental Health, the first such panel since 1995, will study mental health care, as well as substance abuse treatment, recommend ways to improve early identification and treatment, and increase collaboration and measurement of outcomes. It will pay particular attention to services in rural parts of the state and for veterans and the homeless.

“We owe it to taxpayers to make sure the system is as effective and efficient as possible,” Straus, R-San Antonio, said in a statement announcing the committee. Republican Four Price of Amarillo will chair the committee, with Democrat Joe Moody of El Paso as the vice chair.
Republican Sarah Davis and Democrats Garnet Coleman and Senfronia Thompson of Houston will be among the 13 members. The announcement came as welcome news to mental health advocates and providers, many of whom expressed optimism while also noting the long way the state has to go.


The membership of the new panel also sparked optimism for advocates, such as Bill Kelly of the Houston chapter of Mental Health America, who noted that key budget-writers such as Price and Davis were included alongside policy experts such as Coleman and Thompson.
“That’s the A team,” Kelly said.
Coleman said that he expected the committee to make a difference, including by finding innovative ways to improve care without huge costs. “Mental health crosses into so many areas of public policy, whether it’s criminal justice, juvenile justice, education or health care in general and this is the best way to look at it, by bringing together people who are familiar with the different areas,” he said. “This is a great thing.”


According to the advocacy group Mental Health America, just 36 percent of Texas adults with mental illness receive help – 44th in the nation. For kids, the estimate of 40 percent is from Kaiser.
As a result of all that, the state’s criminal justice system has become the biggest provider of psychiatric treatment. Around 76,000 people with mental illness were arrested in Texas for minor crimes last year, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

One of the most encouraging statements from Speaker Straus in forming this committee was his wide-ranging view of how mental health affects different areas of government. With members from Corrections, County Affairs, Public Health, Criminal Justice, and perhaps most appropriately from Appropriations, Speaker Straus has ensured a comprehensive look at policy. In a supportive editorial, the Chronicle said of the committee, “it will take an IMAX-style approach, at least, to encompass the range of deficiencies in mental health treatment.”

While I would always question that Bill Kelly guy, the local members from Harris County delegation appointed the Select Committee are serious players that can be a strong voice for local concerns.



Representatives Davis, Coleman, and Thompson

For example, Rep. Garnet Coleman is the chair of the County Affairs Committee and has been a leader in helping change the process and procedures for law enforcement on jail intake forms. He is widely regarded as the state’s expert on mental health policy in Texas.

Rep. Sarah Davis was one of the 5 House members on the Budget Conference Committee last session while also serving on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Health & Human Services. She is one of the most knowledgeable members in either the House or Senate when it comes to mental health funding in Texas.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson is one of the most effective Texas House members . . . well in history. According to Capitol Inside’s Mike Hailey, “Thompson has shepherded more legislation successfully than any other state representative here in the past half-century if she isn’t the all-time leader in the respect.” For those that know, Mrs. T will fight for the “little dogs” and get things done.

For these committee members, MHA of Greater Houston will be looking to provide information and policy positions that can best represent the strengths of our region and also identify the shortcomings. Making sure our lawmakers have the best information available is exactly what the legislative advocacy of MHA of Greater Houston is all about.
As some of my fellow Houstonians listening to this can testify to, we’ve recently had an election in Houston. With a new Mayor, we wanted to sit down with Mayor Annise Parker to look back at the accomplishments of her administration and how she sees behavioral health policy at the municipal level.


Mayor Annise Parker

Bill Kelly: We are here at City Hall with Mayor Parker. Mayor, thank you so much for sitting with us today for Minding Houston. We greatly appreciate it.
Mayor Annise Parker: Glad to do it. You know I don’t have many days left so it’s nice to look back over the accomplishments.

Kelly: Well, first question, when you supported the creation of The Sobering Center, were you actively looking at changing the city’s response to substance use and addiction from a criminal justice setting to more of a health care treatment one?

Parker: I would love to say that was the foremost reason I was doing it. It was really a much more practical need and the way it turned out we were able to address several important issues at one time. The city of Houston is the last big city in Texas that has its own jail. That’s a county function. Cities have gotten out of the jail business and we have been under a consent decree for at least two decades, trying to shut it down or rebuild it. The real solution is to merge with Harris County and one of the reasons that we had been unable to do it is just the capacity of Harris County. We did some analysis and on a given year we would arrest 17,000 to 19,000 people for public intoxication of some kind. And if we could take those out of the inmate stream it would significantly reduce the census and make that arrangement with Harris County easier. At the same time as we began to analyze, a wealth of benefits came out. It was an opportunity for intervention, clearly. It was an opportunity to get a police officer who picks somebody up out of the street faster. Fifteen minute turn around at the Center for Sobriety rather than a couple of hours booking somebody into jail. It means that someone doesn’t have a criminal record and there is a whole host of problems that come when you criminalize the behavior and hang that arrest record on somebody. And then finally, it costs significantly less to put someone in the Center for Sobriety than it is to put somebody in jail. So it was a win-win-win-win and it has absolutely proved that. Going forward now that we have a few years of history with the Center for Sobriety, the challenge has been that it has to be routine for law enforcement. You have to train them to really look at who they are picking up and make an informed decision and it has to become habit. We have broadened it; it started with police officers and broadened it to the larger law enforcement community here in Houston and they just have to get it to be a routine. But the next thing we have to do is – we don’t do a forced intervention. The premise is you come, you stay four hours minimum or until you sober up and are able to leave on your own, and you don’t have to talk to a counselor although the counselor is there. You don’t have to do anything but just get yourself under control and you can walk out the door. Well, then we discovered the frequent flyers that cycle through over and over and over again. And so this is a neutral space where all of the various agencies deal with addiction and substance abuse so all those turf wars don’t have to break out. We have a number of partners there, so now we are gradually adding in the appropriate level of intervention where someone is clearly a danger to themselves. If you are coming through more than once a month – even that is a lot, but at more than once a month we have to do something. So that’s the next phase and I am very, very excited about that.

Kelly: Picking up on some of your comments, the mental health division of the HPD is one of the national models and it is the only mental health division in the state of Texas for any major police department. What made you, in some lean budgetary times, make the investment in this public safety team?
Parker: Well again, it’s a very practical decision because we recognize that a lot of the interventions from the mental health team are in our homeless community and it dovetailed with the initiative that began four years ago to move the needle on homelessness. People aren’t chronically homeless because they like living outside. People are chronically homeless because they have substance abuse or mental health issues or both. So in the mental health unit they interact with an individual who may be in their own home and in crisis, but on a daily basis they also interact with the folks on the street who are chronically homeless and, in fact, they were among those who came to me and said ‘You know, we really need to do something to these folks other than put them in jail.’ Or send them over to the emergency rooms, which is the most expensive care you can provide. Sometimes doing the right thing, the most humane thing is also the most cost effective. It’s just a matter of analyzing why you are really doing something and how you are doing something and seeing if there is a better way.

Kelly: At a recent celebration at The Sobering Center you were able to say some remarks and really see this project to completion or to the status that it has become today. It was a particular person that you mentioned and pointed out who had dealt with addiction and substance abuse and was really an inspiration to you. What would you really look back and say, in view of the accomplishments of creating The Sobering Center and the expanded mental health division in HPD as it relates to him?

Parker: Well first I would say that many of us in America have people in our families that have dealt with addiction and substance abuse, as have I, but what is important is being able to acknowledge those who have dealt with their demons successfully and can be a resource to others and an inspiration to others. My very, very close friend of 30 years is a local judge. He has publically acknowledged that more than 25 years ago he had a substance abuse problem. He himself was arrested and he did what he needed to do. He faced his problems, he still goes to AA, he counsels others who have addictions. We have to get past the stigma of talking about substance abuse problems and addiction and the fact that he is a former elected official – I know he hopes to return to the bench in the future – but that he had made it a part of what he offers that it made him a better judge because it gave him compassion and understanding. He created our homeless court because he had that heart for what some of these folks who were in homelessness were going through. You can’t address addiction with punitive measures. It solves one piece of the problem, but it doesn’t solve the problem and it doesn’t heal the person. You have to have a combination of carrots and sticks and support and compassion and the worst thing you can do is to make it something to be ashamed of.

Kelly: Last question for you, Mayor Parker, in view of this week’s election what advice would you give incoming Mayor Sylvester Turner about the city’s role in mental health and substance abuse addiction issues?

Parker: The city has to be a full partner in this because it affects the greater society. It affects us directly through law enforcement, emergency services, through our health care system but it also affects us as a society and rather than treating it as ‘well, all we as a city only have to focus on – we arrest them, we take them here or there.’ We have to be a partner and I trust that the new mayor understands that and will continue to do that because he will have the opportunity to see how well our homeless team in the city of Houston and the mental health unit of HPD and the folks at The Sobering Center and our many, many nonprofit community partner based organizations that are engaged in this space all work seamlessly together to make sure that we give a safe dignified place to sober up if that’s what’s needed or assistance to those who need help and we keep everybody healthy together.

Kelly: Mayor Parker thank you not only for your time but for your service and particularly what you have done for behavioral health here in Houston.

We offer our sincere congratulations to Mayor-Elect Sylvester Turner. Turner’s concerns about mental health are clear not only from his voting record in Austin but also the fact that his campaign website had a “mental health” platform on his Issues page. A link for that page is below, as well as this picture of his campaign’s door hangers that specifically mentions mental health investments.

Our hope is that the incoming City Council members have the same focus that Mayor-Elect Turner has in continued support for our city’s behavioral health programs.
From all of us at Mental Health America of Greater Houston, we wish you very happy holidays and hopes for an exciting and prosperous new year!

This is Minding Houston, I’m Bill Kelly.

Minding Houston XIII: Minding Houston XIII: Post Session Drama! Medicaid Rate Cuts & Jail Suicide Hearings

So after a Legislative Session that boosted mental health funding and saw the passage of important new laws and programs, how do two issues continue to make the front pages? Turns out that advocacy for mental health services isn’t confined to any legislative calendar. In this episode, we will look at the issues around recent Medicaid rate reduction for children’s therapy and new hearings focusing on jail suicide prevention that continue to generate headlines.

This is Minding Houston. I’m Bill Kelly.

MedicaidNow you may be asking: What is this all about? And why wasn’t this handled during the Legislative Session?

Well, turns out that the budget really isn’t as set as you would think it would be. Several riders direct various state agencies to do certain things, and Rider Number 50 for the Health and Human Services budget is one of them. Emily DePrang of the Quorum Report gives the specifics about how this rider looks at cuts to the Texas Medicaid Acute Care Therapy Program. She writes:

As written, they’ll slash by 25 to 90 percent what Texas pays for medically necessary physical, occupational and speech therapy through the Texas Medicaid Acute Care Therapy Program, which serves about 440,000 poor people with severe disabilities each year, most of them children. Advocates say at least 7,500 therapists will lose their jobs and 60,000 children will lose access to medical care because of the cuts. HHSC can’t refute these claims because it conducted no research in potential impact before announcing the new rates on July 8th.

Why would our Health & Human Services Commission decide to cut the reimbursement to acute care therapies for children with disabilities without doing the proper research on insuring access to services were maintained?


That’s what our elected officials in both parties wanted to know. In an excellent piece by Texas Monthly’s Erica Grieder, the leadership of the Texas Legislature is pushing back hard against the HHSC decision. She reports:

As of August 20th, half a dozen Republicans had sent letters of concern to HHSC Commissioner Chris Traylor, asking him to hold off on implementing those changes until the probable effects could be assessed. Joe Straus, the Speaker of the House, said the same in a Facebook post on September 10: “I expect the Commission to keep us in compliance with federal law as it works through a new proposal. I also believe it is the agency’s responsibility to inform the Legislature if the proposed reductions would harm access to care and network adequacy.” And last week, Robert Garrett, of the Dallas Morning News, reported that Representative John Otto and Senator Jane Nelson–the chairs of House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees respectively—have sent their own letters to Traylor, insisting that the cuts be implemented only if access to care is preserved, and if the state remains on the right side of federal law.

Now, let’s take a step back and remember where we are coming from with this budget. Grieder writes:

On April 1, the House passed its biennial budget bill, which came in at $209.8 billion, and included $62.9 billion for Medicaid. On April 14, the Senate passed its version of the budget, which was bigger, at $211.4 billion overall, but included $800 million less for Medicaid. On May 29th, after House and Senate budget conferees hashed out their differences, both chambers passed the final budget, which authorized $209.4 billion in spending for the 2016-17 fiscal biennium. Of that, $61.2 billion was appropriated for Medicaid–less than either chamber had sought in their respective budgets.

Budget Graphic

So that’s the situation, a budget with lower funding for Medicaid than either the House or Senate passed. As you can imagine, Representatives on both sides of the aisle warned this would be bad. Grieder continues:

On April 22, for example representatives Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, and Bryan Hughes, a Republican, spoke at a rally at the Capitol, where they warned that the Senate’s proposed budget would necessitate severe cuts to Medicaid therapy services. When the conference committee budget came back to the House floor for final passage, John Zerwas and Dan Huberty, both Republicans, flagged concerns about the cuts now in question.

Texas Monthly points out that both the House & Senate chief budget writers are on record as opposing this drastic cut, it concludes with this:

This is a pretty sloppy way to run a major state, clearly. Still, we shouldn’t make poor disabled children pay the price for political exigency. HHSC should hold off on implementing the cuts as planned.

So we’ve heard from the Legislative leaders, but we haven’t heard much from the Governor’s Office. And with that silence came increased attention. After all, HHSC is an executive agency, so it would be natural for the Governor’s office to communicate with HHSC on implementation of the rider.

I’ll leave it to Harvey Kronberg, perhaps the most respected journalist covering the Texas Capitol, to talk about his search for information and the challenges he experienced:


Capitol Tonight: Harvey Kronberg with the Quorum Report goes on the agenda with us tonight and you know this Medicaid cut story of course is still with us. The governor publically made a comment on Friday during that emotional hearing that took place here in Austin. What did he have to say?
Harvey Kronberg: He simply said that they were working out legislative intent which was due to the Medicaid funding cuts. Of course the second half of legislative intent was to do no harm and the cuts that they are proposing do extraordinary harm.
CT: And in the mean time I know you posted your thoughts about a request for information from the governor’s office regarding all of this. What were you after and what was the response?
Kronberg: Well, the governor’s office has been amazingly nonresponsive on this really fairly significant issue, one that has gotten the legislature reengaged by being essentially appalled by the fact that they are going to do 90% cuts to providers for severely disabled children. So we have not been able to get a comment out of the governor’s office so we simply did an open records request to seek the communication between the governor’s office and the Department of Health and Human Services to see if they were trying to solve the problem or were they part of the problem. They did an extraordinary thing, something that I have never seen in almost three decades of doing this: they invoked the entire Public Information Act and said they were not going to respond and turned it over to the Attorney General’s Office. Now, anybody that reads the Public Information Act will see that includes things about exemptions for sexual offenders, for automobile accidents. Typically when someone uses the Public Information Act not to respond they cite what the clauses are that they used.
CT: And you point out about what was said during the campaign.
Kronberg: It’s still on his website unless he’s taken it down that he’s going to be the ‘Transparency Governor’ and this is anything but transparent. And it’s not unreasonable to conclude that if they are trying to hide their emails that they are actually not trying to solve the problem. The legislative budget board has a lot of discretion in being able to move funds around and enact legislative intent. It’s perfectly capable of resolving this problem if it has got gubernatorial support and legislative support. At least the House seems to be resolved and certainly the Senate finance chair seems to have come around so I’m not sure why the governor is being so mysterious and guarded in terms of his office’s communication with Health and Human Services.

So, with disagreement between the Legislature and the Governor’s Office, it took the third branch of government to break the tie. And in this case, the Court’s stepped in to provide relief for Texas families. Edgar Walters with the Texas Tribune reports:

Deep cuts to a therapy program for poor and disabled children will not take effect Oct. 1, a state district judge ruled Tuesday afternoon — the second such delay in recent weeks.

“Procedurally I’m not making a determination that these acts are valid or invalid,” said State District Judge Tim Sulak in his announcement that he would grant a temporary injunction to prevent the state from slashing payments to therapists. But he said he made his ruling in part because he’d been convinced the cuts could jeopardize the health of children receiving the therapy services.

The health commission says it’s just following the Legislature’s orders by implementing the cuts, and that opponents’ claims providers will stop treating disabled children are exaggerated. In closing arguments, Eugene Clayborn, a lawyer representing the state, said there was “no evidence” of critics’ arguments that “the sky’s going to fall in” because of the cuts.
“There will still be access to care,” he said.

The lawyers suing the state focused much of their argument on trying to disprove that point. Owners of home health agencies in North and Central Texas testified that their businesses would be forced to close, including in markets where they are the main provider of therapy care.

And they presented evidence from inside the health commission that shed light on the agency’s discussions around access to care.

One director at the health commission testified that state employees had been told never to say that they were certain the cuts would not jeopardize access to care.

And an internal memo from the health commission presented by Dan Richards, a lawyer suing the state, warned that payment cuts to therapists “could have serious negative implications for the maintenance of an adequate therapy provider base.”

So for now, it seems that the Texas Medicaid Acute Care Therapy Program will not see the dramatic rate cut, at least until the state appeals this decisions. Stay tuned to Minding Houston as this public policy drama continues to play out.

Next, we move to another issue making headlines: jail suicides. After the legislative session ended, two committees have taken up this issue in interim hearings: The House County Affairs Committee, chaired by our friend and Houston, and the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice chaired by Houston’s own Senator John Whitmire.


Representative Garnet Coleman

During Rep. Coleman’s hearing, a number of officials testified about the huge challenge that County Jails face in Texas. Brandon Wood with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards testified first, and the hearing was reported on by our friends with the Houston Chronicle. They report:

The announced ramp-up of anti-suicide measures came as Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, which monitors jail conditions, told the House committee that half of the record 29 people who have committed suicide in Texas county jails this year told jailers they were suicidal when they arrived at the lockups.

The increased number of jail suicides this year – compared to 22 in 2014, 25 in 2013, and 23 in 2012 – has become the focus of several ongoing investigations and legislative inquiries, spurred, in part, by the July 13 death of community activist Sandra Bland in the Waller County Jail.

Despite general support from sheriffs to stop suicides, some counties already have expressed concerns about the additional costs the changes could bring in areas of Texas where jail budgets are small and taxpayers cannot pay for expensive new programs. In years past, several plans by state officials to impose tougher rules on county and local jails have been scuttled by opposition from local officials who oppose unfunded state mandates on their jail operations and who wield considerable clout with local legislators.

Wood said the new intake screening form is designed to help jailers better identify potentially suicidal inmates.

“We need to make this as user friendly as possible,” he said. “I’m willing to try just about anything to prevent these suicides, if we can.”

Previous screening forms asked jailers whether they suspected an inmate was suffering from mental illness. The new form removes that subjective element, officials said; if inmates give certain answers, jailers are required to notify their supervisors and contact local mental health authorities.

The form also uses a grading system to serve as an additional guide to jailers on when to contact mental health professionals even if an inmate’s answers would not immediately initiate a referral.

A draft of the new form can be found below. Mr. Wood promised to continue to work with the committee on how they could immediately change both the form and procedures during the interim.

LINK: Screening Form for Suicide and Medical and Mental Impairments

But changing the form isn’t going to be enough for the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Before his hearing on September 22nd, I was able to sit down with the Dean to find out his ideas on preventing jail suicides:

Bill Kelly: I’m with the Dean of the Texas Senate, Senator John Whitmire, chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Senator, thank you so much for taking time to meet with us today. So Senator, we were at Representative Coleman’s hearing and you heard a lot about jail intake forms. And a lot of this has been made about moving away from subjective questions on there to more of a standard operating procedure. What do you think about the changes to intake forms and are there any other immediate fixes we can do to address jail suicides?

Sen. John Whitmire: Well, I think reviewing the forms is proper and in fact today in our hearing we will hear about the new forms and they are going to be much more comprehensive at intake.

But I’m quickly pointing out that you can redo all the forms you want, but if the person doing the screening is not trained, if the person doing the screening does not have the right compassion and attitude, doesn’t work for the right person, you can have all the new forms you want and we will still have a difficult situation. Because I think it gets down to attitude, you want to treat people in intake like you would like to be treated or one of your family members and that’s just not the case today particularly as they review any concerns for mental health or emotionally disturbed individuals. You can see it, you can question it, fill out the forms, but if you do not respond properly we will still have a person in danger.

Kelly: And Senator you have been a longtime critic of the budget cuts, particularly in 2003, to mental health services and other state services and now we have seen some of the biggest advocates for mental health services be our law enforcement community. Has their advocacy changed some of the minds of your peers when it comes to funding mental health services?

Whitmire: It’s impacting the legislature and, to some degree, local governments who often times have to pay for the jail. The problem is that it’s too slow. Obviously you know me well, I’m an impatient person. We have identified a problem and we haven’t attacked it to the degree that it needs to be. Law enforcement is recognizing and talking about it more because its impacting their criminal justice system. It’s using up valuable resources for largely non-violent low-level offenders who are mental health patients so it’s beginning to interfere with law enforcement’s main mission of going after dangerous criminals. It’s kind of a culmination of “let’s be tough on crime but we can’t do that if we’ve got these nonviolent folks.” I’m encouraged that we are having a grown up discussion, but we’ve got a hell of a long way to go.

Kelly: Senator, last question. I know the push to address a lot of this jail suicide issue has been very bipartisan. When it comes down to really making a difference a lot of times it’s going to take funding. Do you feel confident whether its increased money for training for jailers, whether its increased inspection money for the Texas Commission on Jail Standards do you have faith that your Republican colleagues will stand with you for allocating funding?

Whitmire: There’s been indication in recent sessions. Joan Huffman and a Senator from Houston helped fund a pilot diversion program for mental health for individuals in Harris county jail. That was a good start but still we’ve got to do a lot more. My colleagues are very fiscal conservative and what I’ve got to convince them is that you either pay now or you pay later. You either pay upfront with treatment and counseling and medication and diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration or you are going to pay later not only in dollars but you could be a victim and certainly we will have compromised the life of the individual who needed the treatment. We got a lot of work to do.

I hate to put a cost factor on doing the right thing, but I do work in an environment – the Capitol – where it’s not uncommon to leave money unspent so they can say that they are fiscal conservatives. I made a commitment to the mental health community ten years ago when I recognized that they didn’t really have a lobby. They didn’t have someone in your position as we do today. We have got to get people, as I have committed. I won’t give a speech about anything dealing with criminal justice without mentioning mental health because they don’t have a paid lobby; they have an organization such as yourself, but they don’t have the lineup that big business and big labor has. The only lobby that they are going to have are the legislators that care and the people of Texas and so our work is cut out for us.

Kelly: Absolutely. Senator, thank you so much and best of luck in the hearing today.

The Senator got a lot of confirmation during the hearing on his analysis of the impact mental healthcare has on the criminal justice system. One of the best presentations was provided by Lauren Lacefield Lewis, Assistant Commissioner for Mental Health & Substance Abuse Services for the Department of State Health Services. Some quick numbers to consider:

  • As of August 1st, 2015, approximately 66,625 individuals were in Texas county jails
  • An estimated 30% of inmates have one of more serious mental illnesses
  • This equates to nearly 20,000 people in Texas county jails with serious mental illnesses

Now, with those numbers in mind, check out this slide for the cost the criminal justice system bears in housing and treating individuals suffering from a mental illness.

From these numbers, it is clear that the provision of mental healthcare on the front end is ¼ the cost of prisons and jails per day, with a yearly savings of $15,000 per individual. For the 20,000 people in Texas County jails with a serious mental illness, if we were able to divert just half into treatment, it would save the state $150 million a year.

We hope the Senator will let his colleagues know, even in Texas, that’s a LOT of money.

Texas-TribuneThe Texas Tribune’s Johnathan Silver reports from the hearing about the popularity these savings could have with both lives and money:

Diversion, the overwhelmingly preferred treatment for low-level offenders with mental health problems would work best with coordination among mental health authorities, law enforcement, jails and courts, lawmakers said.

If an inmate has a mental health problem, all those entities should work together to move them into treatment as soon as possible, Whitmire said, adding that it shouldn’t be an issue in rural areas where officials likely know each other well and can use that as a benefit to help with seeking treatment.


Ultimately, Whitmire said, the state has a responsibility to address this issue because if it denies someone their freedom, there are constitutional responsibilities involved in caring for people in custody.

“A lot of it gets down to attitude and cultural awareness,” Whitmire said. “You have to recognize mental health and emotional problems.”

Sen. Charles Perry, R–Lubbock, injected caution throughout the hearing, warning that the state risks having a knee-jerk reaction to high-profile cases such as Bland’s and not seeing that protocol is not the enemy. He asked Wood what ultimately led to Bland’s death.

“People not following through, first and foremost,” Wood said.

CHRONICLEWell, to follow through on the local end, this report from the Houston Chronicle’s Mike Ward notes the testimony of someone we know quite well from the City of Houston:

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland detailed how his agency has implemented a program to do just that in the city jail, which, as a municipal lockup, is not regulated by the state.

Whitmire and other lawmakers have suggested that municipal jails should be regulated by the state, like Texas’ 242 county jails.

McClelland said the Houston jail that handles about 75,000 low-level offenders annually has had only two suicides in recent years, including this year, and has beefed up mental health screenings, supervision and interventions.

Chief McClelland testified about the fabulous work done by the Mental Health Division of the Houston Police Department. From the Homeless Outreach Team to the Chronic Consumer Stabilization Initiative, McClelland was very proud of the work done but emphasized the training that new HPD cadets receive as part of the academy.


Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland

As we’ve mentioned, Houston is recognized by the Department of Justice for having one of six national training sites for Crisis Intervention Training (or CIT) in the country. As Senator Whitmire has said, your programs are only as good as the people implementing them. In Houston, we are lucky to have some of the best.

Now, neither of these two issues will be solved any time soon. But they will need people to advocate for them: for their importance on the agenda and in the budget. That’s exactly what we hope to do in the lead up to the 85th Legislative Session in 2017.

For now, this is Minding Houston.
I’m Bill Kelly.

Minding Houston: Episode XII – I say hey! What’s going on?

August is supposed to be a quiet month in Houston. The constant hum of everyone’s air conditioning running as we try and avoid the triple digit heat just as the fire from the last legislative session starts to die down is normally a time when Houston settles down and gets ready for the fall. However at Mental Health America of Greater Houston, we’ve never been busier. From integrated care, to veterans’ mental health, and mayoral politics, it is a crowded event calendar in August. In Episode XII of Minding Houston, we will let you know exactly what’s going on, and how you can be a part of it.

This is Minding Houston, I’m Bill Kelly.

So first things first, integrated care is one of the primary buckets of work we engage the community in here at MHA of Greater Houston. Our efforts are led by Alejandra Posada, Director of Education and Training. Using the MHA of Greater Houston systems change model that has previously been used with efforts like public safety reforms with the Houston Police Department, Ale is brining quite an impressive group of local and statewide leaders together for the kick-off this Thursday at 9am at the Baker Institute at Rice University.

I spoke with Ale about the initiative earlier this week:

Bill Kelly: What is the systems change initiative model you are following?

Alejandra Posada: We are following a systems-change model that MHA has successfully used to address other important systemic issues – issues such as law enforcement interaction with mental health consumers; the trajectory of youth with mental health needs in the juvenile justice system; veterans’ behavioral health; and the prevention, early identification and treatment of behavioral health issues among school-age children.

We call the process “Interest Based Negotiation,” IBN for short, and it is influenced by consensus-building approaches and Appreciative Inquiry. Basically, it’s a process of bringing together the diverse stakeholders concerning a particular issue to undertake an intensive process of information-gathering and analysis, and ultimately to come to a consensus on recommendations to address the issue. During this process, MHA works very hard to ensure that our role remains that of a coordinator for the initiative and does not develop into a role where we are “in charge,” so to speak. For the process to be successful it’s very important that the stakeholders around the table fully own the process. We get the process going, but the stakeholder group then takes the reins to make it happen.

Kelly: Okay, the kickoff event is this Thursday. Who are you bringing together?

Posada: We are very excited about the kick-off event this Thursday, for which we are very fortunate to be partnering with the Center for Health and Biosciences at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. We’ve brought together representatives from key stakeholder groups, including health care providers, third-party payers, institutions of higher education, public officials, and others with a stake in the issues. From interested parties in this group, as well as others who join us, we will form the core group of stakeholders who will collaboratively undertake the IBN process.

Kelly: If people want to be involved that cannot attend, what’s the best way to do so?

Posada: I’ve told a few people who are interested in the initiative but cannot attend on Thursday that this event, as fantastic as we expect it to be, is just a kick-off. The real work will happen subsequently. Anyone who is interested in participating can contact myself or Bill; our contact information in on the MHA website.

Also if anyone out of town or who can’t make it to Rice on Thursday would like to view the event, it will be livestreamed. To view the livestream, just go to the event page on the Baker Institute’s website at the time of the event. We’ll also make the livestream available afterwards.

The success of this initiative depends entirely on the collaborative participation of stakeholders, so if you’re interested, please do contact us!

The invitation to the forum is listed below. It should be a very engaging conversation on the policies that can lead to better trained and better financed behavioral healthcare for all Texans.

Making Together Work

Aug 13 – Policy Solutions for Integrating Care

Next, and by that I literally mean the next DAY, MHA of Greater Houston proud to once again partner with the Michael E. DeBakey VA Hospital to host the 2015 Veterans Mental Health Summit. On Friday, August 14th at the University of St. Thomas starting at 8:30am, the 2015 Southeast Texas Gulf Coast Veterans Mental Health Summit builds on relationships spawned by the previous two Summits and aims to stimulate new connections that are necessary to promote Veteran-centered, recovery-oriented care. Active collaboration and coordination of care with partners across our community is critically important to facilitate awareness and use of VA mental health resources, help Veterans gain access to community services, and build healthy communities that provide an integrated network of support for Veterans and their families.

I was able to steal a few moments from Tony Solomon, Director of our Veterans’ Behavioral Health at MHA of Greater Houston, about the summit:

Bill Kelly: How many times as Mental Health America of Greater Houston helped with the Veterans Mental Health Forums?

Tony Solomon: Bill, this will be out third time working on the Veterans Mental Health Summit with Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center and this year we brought on some new partners like Lone Star Veterans Association, Harris County MHMRA, Playsmint, ViaHope and some others.

Kelly: What is the real content that people could expect to hear and learn?

Solomon: The purpose of this event is to improve collaboration between the VA and community agencies in the service of Veterans and to understand better the needs of Veterans and their families. We have built in networking and presentations of community collaborative work, issues, and training available for service providers to add to their tool kit when serving veterans and their families.

CEUs will be available for behavioral health professionals, including social workers, licensed marriage and family therapists, licensed chemical dependency counselors, and peer support specialists.

Programming includes:

  • Veterans Accountability Act 2014
  • Needs of Family, Caregivers, and Veterans
  • Providers Panel
  • The Military Veteran Peer Network Volunteer Awards

The event is open to the public and we would love to see you there. The invitation is below:

Veterans Mental Health Summit 2015

Aug 14 – Veterans Mental Health Summit 2015

Finally, for those of us in Houston, you just might be aware of an election coming up in November. We’ve partnered with three great advocacy organizations: National Alliance on Mental Illness, the Houston Recovery Initiative, and the Council on Recovery in hosting a Mayoral Forum on Behavioral Health.

The Forum is scheduled for Monday, August 31st at the University of St. Thomas’s Jones Hall at 6:30pm.

Now, unlike just about every other forum during the campaign, we will not be talking about transportation, pension reform, or spending caps. We will be very focused on the behavioral health programs that the City of Houston directly funds.

It is vital to good advocacy that we show the seven candidates for mayor just how many people care about these programs. We hope that you will attend and even bring a friend or two. Advocacy matters, and in this case, making sure the next Mayor of Houston understand the vital importance and political popularity of these programs .

To give you an idea of what we will be discussing, I invite you to check out the link below to see a history of the Mental Health Division at the Houston Police Department. There, you can see a timeline that shows the progress and now national leadership that HPD has in training officers and deploying mental health professionals to help in times of crisis.

By no means are these three events the totality of what MHA of Greater Houston is working on during August. Numerous Mental Health First Aid trainings coordinated by Janet Pozmantier are ongoing during the summer when classroom teachers have flexibility. Tony’s recently completed VCAMP helped train over 20 Military Veteran Peer Network leaders from across Texas just last week. Ongoing women’s mental health and other trainings continue to provide the badly needed skill in screening and referral of mental health services throughout the month of August.

But I highlight these three events as some of the best ways you can personally attend and see how Mental Health America of Greater Houston is affecting policy change on the ground.

And that’s really what Minding Houston, is all about.

This is Bill Kelly.

To attend Making Together Work: Policy Solutions to Integrated Care or observe the livestream on August 14, visit our event page at the Baker Institute for Public Policy website. To RSVP for our Mayoral Forum for Behavioral Health on August 31, register at our Eventbrite.You can find more information about the Houston Police Department’s Mental Health Division and the history of our Crisis Intervention Team at HoustonCIT.org.

Music from this episode: “I love the Blues” by the Bluesraiders, “Hotel Rodeo ft. D Spliff” by Anitek and “Flutey Funk” by Kevin MacLeod.

Minding Houston: Episode XI – They are done! Wait, what did they do?

On Monday, June 1st, both the Texas House of Representatives and State Senate adjourned Sine Die, bringing an end to the 84th Legislative Session. The next time either chamber can consider changes to Texas law isn’t scheduled until January of 2017. So in the last 140 days, what did our lawmakers do to address mental health and what funding did they put behind it? The legislative review for mental health policy, next on Minding Houston.

I’m Bill Kelly.

The Legislature does a lot during a session, and to give the full recap of what really happened on mental health policy, I’d like to start by talking about the “Big 4” bills that we at Mental Health America of Greater Houston supported, then move to the budget and see how funding was appropriated, and finally to a numerous bills that deal with mental health services to targeted populations. With this perspective, a clear picture of what was (and wasn’t addressed) can develop.

For listeners of this program, we have highlighted a number of bills that are important to mental health advocates. There were four that were particularly important to us at MHA of Greater Houston that dealt with workforce, access, peer support, and veterans’ programs.


Sen. Charles Schwertner

First off, Senate Bill 239 by Sen. Charles Schwertner sets up a Mental Health Loan Repayment Assistance Program. We have gone in depth on the bill in a previous episode on the Mental Health Workforce, but wanted to report the exact details of the bill. Under provisions of the bill, the total amount of repayment assistance received for mental health professionals is as follows:

  • $160,000 for assistance received by a licensed physician;
  • $80,000 for assistance received by a psychologist,
  • $80,000 for a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) that has received a doctoral degree related to social work,
  • $80,000 for a licensed professional counselor (LPC) that has received a doctoral degree related to counseling;
  • $60,000 for an advanced practice registered nurse;
  • $40,000 for assistance received by a licensed clinical social worker or a licensed professional counselor who has not received a doctoral degree.

Based on the criteria established in the bill, the Higher Education Coordinating Board estimates 100 medical health professionals would receive loan repayment assistance beginning in fiscal year 2016.

The type of professionals and award amount is as follows:

  • 25 psychiatrists at $16,000,
  • 25 psychologists, LPCs, or LCSWs with a doctoral degree, at $8,000,
  • 25 advanced practice registered nurses at $6,000,
  • 25 licensed clinical social workers without a doctoral degree at $4,000.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner

Based on these assumptions, the 100 awards in fiscal year 2016 would result in a total General Revenue cost of $850,000. The cost for the 100 medical health care providers would increase to $1.3 million in fiscal year 2017.

That’s putting real dollars behind expanding our mental health workforce. And speaking of dollars, that brings us to our second bill. Our audience will remember our interview with State Representative Sylvester Turner about his bill promoting Home and Community Based Services he championed in House Bill 1393.

Unfortunately, Turner’s bill died in the Calendars Committee, but that didn’t stop him from using his position as Vice Chair of the Appropriations Committee to insert a Rider into the Department of State Health Services budget that does the following:

Rider 61

Rep. Turner’s Rider also mandates that a report detailing target populations that are diverted from jails and emergency rooms, the associated cost per recipient, and possible cost sharing with local communities that benefit from diversions.

This was a big priority for our area, and we can’t thank Rep. Turner (and his very diligent staff) for working hard not only on their bill but on getting this language in the final budget. Sometimes, it is good to be the Vice Chair!

jane nelson

Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson

Now speaking of Chairs, Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson helped pass what could potentially be a $20 million infusion of veteran mental health programs with her Senate Bill 55.

SB 55 requires the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) to establish a grant program for the purpose of supporting community mental health programs providing services and treatment to veterans with mental illness.

The bill requires HHSC to contract with a private entity to support and administer the grant program with HHSC and the private entity each providing one-half of the money that will be awarded under the grant program along with eligibility and approval criteria. The cost of this to the state will be $10 million per year, but because of the public private partnership in funding it will provide $20 million worth of services to veterans. A big shout out to House Chair of Defense and Veterans Affairs Susan King for her work getting this bill through the House side of the Legislative process.


State Rep. Cindy Burkett

Finally, the last of our “Big 4” that didn’t make it through: Rep. Cindy Burkett’s House Bill 1541 on Certified Peer Support Services. Now, our audience may recall this bill was featured, along with Turner’s Home & Community Based Services, as one of the bills to watch for mental health services this session. The reason it was highlighted was the multiple ways that peer support services can help with mental healthcare: issues from access, workforce, and relapse & recidivism in the criminal justice system are all addressed with these services.

Hogg Foundation for Mental Health

Our friends at the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health in Austin had the following on one of their white papers explaining how HB 1541 would benefit patients:

Peer support services are not intended to replace other mental health services, but the frequency of other services can be reduced when an individual is supported by a peer, often resulting in lower costs and better outcomes. When peer support services are included within the continuum of community care, the mental health system expands quantitatively by reaching more people, and qualitatively by helping people become more independent.

Peer specialists assist individuals experiencing mental illness by helping them focus on recovery, wellness, self-direction, responsibility and independent living. Certified peer specialist services could be provided in a myriad of environments such as emergency rooms, FQHCs, consumer operated service centers, criminal justice facilities, and many more.

And finally, they state:

Current initiatives to address the mental health needs of Texans are being met head-on with a critical mental health workforce shortage. It is in the best interest of the state to find effective and economically feasible ways to ensure that needed mental health services are provided. Expanding the use of certified peer specialists is a promising way to begin addressing the expanding need for services and the co-occurring shrinking of the mental health workforce.

Rep. Burkett was able to have her bill pass out of the House, but it died in the Senate Health & Human Services Committee. This is an unfortunately loss for the session, but rest assured, we aren’t going to stop until quality mental healthcare legislation on peer support services is passed and funded.

Now we turn to the one bill that had to pass this session, the budget. How did mental health services get funded at the state level this year? Did the momentum from last session continue? In a word, yes, yes it did.

A summary for the increases for 4 funding strategies was detailed by a June 10th article in the Community Impact News. The article quotes some guy named Bill Kelly in talking about the amounts each area was increased and how that compares to previous bienniums.

However, I’d like to share the really story behind those numbers and what they mean as far as services go for Texas and in Harris County.

Starting off, you can see an increase of almost $34 million in mental health services for adults in funding strategy line B.2.1. But what does that mean for access? Well, it means that with another $34 million, over 10,000 more adults will have access to mental health services in 2016 & 17 than in the previous two years.

With $33 million additional dollars in crisis services, the numbers are event better. Over 31,000 more people will receive crisis residential and outpatient services this biennium than that last.

All told, it looks to be over $150 million increase for behavioral health services from the previous budget, which is certainly good news. This should be seen as Legislature really putting its money where its mouth is on mental health in the last two sessions.

However, I want to make sure everyone knows where we are coming from on these programs and the population served.

From another great Community Impact News story from November of 2014 –

“Across the state, an estimated 894,000 residents have a severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder,” MHMRA Executive Director Steven Schnee said. Of that amount, 163,724 adults in Harris County—one of the state’s fastest growing areas—are believed to have a severe mental illness, he said.

“We have less than 10 percent treating capacity on an ongoing basis of what the need is,” Schnee said. “Every day, every week and every month there are young people between ages 16 and 24 who are beginning to manifest symptoms that could be indicative of a major mental illness. It is not a static population.”

Through the restoration of millions of dollars in state funding, MHMRA was able to hire several new employees and plans to continue increasing staff levels in 2015, Schnee said. The facility has also increased its monthly patient base by 1,600 to reach 9,800 individuals in the past year and anticipates the capacity to treat 11,000 adults in the near future, he said.

Prior to 2013, MHMRA maintained an external waiting list of an estimated 1,800 people who were screened and determined eligible for treatment by the Department of State and Health Services. Schnee said the facility was able to expand its outpatient services to eliminate the external waiting list entirely and address the need for five new treatment teams to serve 2,500 patients with psychiatrists, nurses, caseworkers and rehabilitation staff.

Community Impact

So, to be clear, after a terrific session in 2013 for mental health funding, we are able to treat 11,000 of our Harris County friends and neighbors per month with a severe and persistent mental illness. However, as the article notes, we have over 160,000 friends and neighbors in need. That’s the less than 10% number Dr. Schnee notes. While this year’s increases will no doubt add to this number receiving treatment, we have such a long way to go before mental health care in Harris County is accessible to those who need it. We have a very long way to go, but the good news is we are headed in the right direction and we are not slowing down.

When it comes to this budget success, we have some very specific thank yous to hand out. Appropriations Chairman John Otto kept mental health funding as a priority and we congratulate him on his first session as the Appropriations Chair. Appropriations Vice Chair Sylvester Turner was a consistent ally in fighting for more funding and the final budget shows his effectiveness. Finally, a big thank you to Rep. Sarah Davis, who helped debate the House investments as a member of the Budget Conference Committee and who worked to make sure Harris County received its fair share of dollars. In addition to these lawmakers, a big thank you to their diligent staffs as well. Thank you for putting up with the constant calls and visits!

So aside from the “Big 4” bills and the budget, Mental Health America of Greater Houston was involved in a number of pieces of legislation. In order to report on them, I’ve tried to organization them into four categories: veterans, public education, criminal justice, and overall access. We were very happy to work with the bill authors on this.

Locally, the Houston area was well represented by several legislators looking to expand access for our veterans.

SRG speaking on the floor

Sen. Sylvia Garcia

First, Senator Sylvia Garcia’s Senate Bill 1474 dealt with one of our major programs at Mental Health America of Greater Houston: Veterans Treatment Court. SB 1474 expanded the eligibility for veterans’ court to include both Military Sexual Trauma (MST) and non-combat service. We were proud to work with our Judge Marc Carter in his strong support for this bill, and want to give both Senator Garcia and her outstanding staff a big thank you. We should also mention Chairman John Whitmire and his staff were terrific and getting this bill moving.

State Rep. Ana Hernandez

State Rep. Ana Hernandez

Secondly, we had previously featured Representative Ana Hernandez’s House Bill 867 establishing in the Texas Women’s Veteran Program inside of the Texas Veterans Commission. The bill was signed by the Governor on June 4th and will make permanent many of the programs currently assisting the 177,000 female veterans in Texas. Congratulations to Rep. Hernandez on this important piece of legislation.

Finally, the last bill affecting veterans was the failure of a bill constricting educational benefits of veterans under the Hazelwood Act. Rep. Joe Farias, himself a Vietnam Veteran, speaking against efforts to cut Hazlewood, said, “If the Legislature decides to roll back its promise to Texas Veterans and their families, what does that say about us as a state? When we talk about the Veteran we must remember that with them comes their family. I will fight for them until I cannot fight any longer.”

State Rep. Joe Farias

State Rep. Joe Farias

As initially presented to the Texas House, SB 1735 would have deeply scaled back the Hazlewood program, which exempts Veterans from tuition at Texas colleges and universities and allows Veterans to pass on their unused benefits to their children. After heavy resistance from Reps. Farias, Blanco and a group of bipartisan lawmakers, a compromise was reached to keep current benefits in place for Texas Veterans and their families.

garnet coleman

State Rep. Garnet Coleman

The next set of bills had to deal with expanded mental health coverage within the public education system. Senate Bill 133 by Senator Charles Schwertner seeks to expand the availability of Mental Health First Aide training to more school district employees, including educators, school resource officers, secretaries, school bus drivers, and cafeteria workers.

Secondly, Senate Bill 674 by Senator Donna Campbell amends the Education Code to sync up the curriculum regarding mental health, substance abuse, and youth suicide as the instruction a person must receive as part of the training required to obtain certain educator certification. This bill was carried in the House by Rep. Garnet Coleman and helps to clean up the mandates created in Senate Bill 460 from the 83rd Legislative Session.


Sen. Jose Rodriguez

Finally, Senate Bill 1624 by Sen. Jose Rodriguez expands access to university students to valuable mental health and suicide prevention information. It requires a general academic teaching institution to provide to each entering full-time undergraduate, graduate, or professional student, including transfers, information about available mental health and suicide prevention services offered by the institution or by any associated organizations or programs and about early warning signs that are often present in and appropriate intervention for a person who may be considering suicide.

Unfortunately, I spend a great deal of time in the Criminal Justice Committees in the Legislature. We’ve talked about the connections in previous episodes, but these three bills where highlights on mental health access within the criminal justice system.

State Rep. Elliot Naishtat

State Rep. Elliot Naishtat

First, there is House Bill 1908 by Rep. Elliot Naishtat that updates the continuity of care for offenders with mental impairments defined by the Diagnostic & Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5) to include: major depressive, PTSD, schizoaffective, psychotic, anxiety, delusional, or any other mental health disorder that is severe or persistent. Congrats to Rep. Naishtat for this bill that will enhance the mental healthcare of offenders.

State Rep. Marisa Marquez

State Rep. Marisa Marquez

Next, House Bill 1083 by Rep. Marisa Marquez deals with mental health concerns around solitary confinement. It requires that a mental health assessment be performed on an inmate before the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) may confine an inmate in administrative segregation, and also prohibits TDCJ from confining the inmate if the assessment indicates that type of confinement is not appropriate for the inmate’s medical or mental health.

Lastly, a bill that did not pass: House Bill 2523 by Rep. Naishtat that would suspend, rather than end, Medicaid coverage for inmates incarcerated for longer than 30 days. Now, we should also credit Sen. Jose Menedez for his efforts on this change in law as well.

As a quick refreshed, Dr. Andy Keller from the Meadows Mental Health Public Policy Institute spoke in support of this change at a conference by the Texas Public Policy Founding saying “– if we are going to take the time to give someone Medicaid, the least we can do is let them keep it if they get in trouble and not make them go through all of these hoops again. Not because, you don’t even have to be a decent person, but you just have to not be stupid. I mean, it’s a waste of resources to make these folks go through that again so if we could get behind that, and to allow Medicaid benefits to be suspended a reasonable amount of time – actually as long as we possibly can – because we would like people if they are still eligible to be able to keep that when they come out because we would like to keep them out.”

I love that quote because it boils down to simple pragmatism, which isn’t liberal or conservative. It is about good policy, and I hope both Rep. Naishtat & Sen. Mendez will keep at it next session. Thank you both again!

Overall access for mental health services can be a catch all of policy. For example, Senate Bill 1507 by Sylvia Garcia deals with coordination between the Department of State Health Services & forensic commitments (people who enter mental health services through the criminal justice system). Garcia’s bill seeks to appoint a forensic director to better coordinate services for what we now know is the majority of commitments in Texas. Thanks again to Senator Garcia for making this happen.

Our friend Rep. Naishtat makes a return appearance with his House Bill 838, which looks to classify post-traumatic stress disorder as a serious mental illness for the purposes of statutory provisions governing group health benefit plan coverage. I testified for this bill in the House, but unfortunately it died in the Senate Business & Commerce Committee. People are familiar with PTSD from returning veterans, but they are only part of the community of patients that PTSD affects. Making this part of all insurance coverage would increase the access for services, and we hope to pass it next year.

Governor Greg Abbott

Governor Greg Abbott

The last bill increasing access was Rep. Garnet Coleman’s House Bill 3115, which looked to expand services for new Medicaid mothers with Post-Partum Depression. We featured an interview with Rep. Coleman on this bill and he was encouraged by the bipartisan support. The bill was mentioned by Governor Abbott in his State of the State Address:

I think we all know in this chamber it’s not just our veterans that need better access to health care. We also need to provide more funding for women’s health programs. For more access to care like cancer screenings and checkups. My budget provides that additional funding. My budget also increases funding for the treatment of Post-Partum Depression.

Well, aside from declaring May Post-Partum Depression Awareness Month, the Governor doesn’t have another bill on his desk to increase PPD resources. Rep. Coleman was passionate in his layout and we were happy to testify and lend our support, but it seems Governor Abbott will need to back this bill more vigorously next session.

So that’s it . . . or so we thought. Given that a number of great bills passed this session, on June 1st I was ready to relax and start my wrap ups when this happened:

scott braddock

Scott Braddock, journalist and Editor of the Quorum Report

Health care advocates shocked by Abbott’s vetoes so far

by The Quorum Report

Just barely into this maiden veto period, Gov. Greg Abbott has flexed his pen three times to kill a set of bipartisan measures related to mental illness that were considered uncontroversial exactly until their sudden death. Stakeholders say they were blindsided by the vetoes, at which they claim Abbott never so much as hinted.

Two of the doomed bills, Senate Bill 359 and House Bill 225, enjoyed strong support from multiple medical groups and mental health advocates. SB 359 also had backing from law enforcement in the form of the Sheriff’s Association of Texas. A third item, vetoed Monday, was a House Concurrent Resolution commending mental health professionals, was so apparently benign as to appear on the Local and Consent Calendar.

House Bill 225 would have extended the state’s Good Samaritan law to cover overdoses by intoxicants other than alcohol. Abbott’s veto statement said that, as written, the bill could be misused by drug dealers and habitual users.

But more disturbing to the health care community was Abbott’s veto of SB 359 on Tuesday. It would have allowed emergency room doctors detain a patient for up to four hours if the person seemed to pose an imminent threat to themselves or others because of severe mental illness. Under current Texas law, patients who self-admit for non-psychiatric causes but show signs of dangerousness can only be asked to stay at the hospital. Doctors can call police, but, “That person’s already out the door by the time police get there,” says Greg Hansch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Texas branch.”

The Houston Chronicle piles on as well:

Two bills filed in the 84th Legislature pertaining to mental health were considered uncontroversial until their recent veto by Gov. Greg Abbott.

If a governor is communicating his legislative priorities effectively, a veto should not come as a surprise. Yet some supporters of the proposed legislation claimed to have been blindsided by the opposition.


The Legislature meets for only a few months every two years. As with this recent action, the public suffers when carefully crafted bills are vetoed after lawmakers have left Austin. And this time, it is some of Texas’ most vulnerable residents who will suffer most.

So, what do we know? Well, we do know a number of good things happened this session and very good money was added to expand the accessibility of mental health services. We also know a number of crucial measures didn’t make it into Texas law, and we have to be vigilant until they are.

image004Mental Health America of Greater Houston will continue to monitor state policy on mental health. And there will be various legislative report cards, best and worst list, and comments on vetoes produced by a number of organizations. We will post what matters to you, and that’s what matters to mental health policy in Houston.

In fact, we wanted you to Save the Date for an upcoming an event. We will be hosting a Mayoral Forum on Monday, August 31st at St. Thomas University with our partners from NAMI of Greater Houston, the Houston Recovery Initiative, and the Council on Recovery. We look forward to seeing you there!

But from now until then, this is Minding Houston. I’m Bill Kelly.

Music in this episode: “Can’t We All Get Along?” by copperhead, “Plethora” by Anitek, “Slow Motion Strut Version Two” by Dexter Britain, “Finally Home (Before Dawn Cypher Beat)” by Ryan Little, “Vacate the Premises” by Deadly Combo, “Beyond the Finish Line” by Dexter Britain and New Midnight Cassette System by Frank Edward Nora (host of The Overnightscape).