Virginia legislators will face no shortage of big-ticket budget battles when the General Assembly convenes Wednesday, with such perennially contested items as K-12 education and transportation topping the list. Yet the session is also expected to include an equally tough fight to increase mental health funding in Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposed two-year, $85 billion spending plan.
Advocates have already taken their pleas directly to the lawmakers in charge of the commonwealth's purse strings. More than 80 people spoke before members of the legislature's money committees at a recent, four-hour hearing at George Mason University, with many of them delivering impassioned, personal pleas to persuade the lawmakers to preserve or increase funding for mental health programs.
The meeting was just one of five held across the state on the issue.
Carrin Brandt, president of the Arc of Northern Virginia, a mental health advocacy group, talked about her 10-year-old daughter, Bailey, whose illnesses, including uncontrollable seizures, resulted in her having surgery to remove half of her brain.
Bailey received an intellectual-disability (ID) waiver, which allows people to receive Medicaid funding for services without having to live in an institution. But not all Virginia residents are as fortunate.
The statewide ID waiting list stood at nearly 6,000 as of early December, with 701 reported by the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board alone.
"I have a question for all of you," Ms. Brandt said. "Would you want to spend your adult years living with your parents or in an institution? Is that a goal you have for your children?"
The Arc of Virginia is pushing for money to fund 1,500 new ID waivers and 275 developmental-disability waivers, which would cost about $90 million over the biennium.
Virginia is already in negotiations with the Justice Department, which in February issued a scathing report that said the state's system for people with disabilities is needlessly institutionalizing people in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The General Assembly created a $30 million trust fund last year as a first step toward addressing the report. And Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, is proposing an additional $30 million for the fund in his budget plan.
While advocates were grateful for the governor's effort, they say the needs go beyond adding waivers and moving people from institutions to community-based settings.
Christy Gallagher, of Fairfax County, told the story of her 9-year-old daughter, Meg, who has been diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety disorder and pediatric bipolar disorder.
She said during the summer before Meg entered third grade her daughter reached a "crisis point" that included violent tantrums in which she abused family members and the family dog.
Meg even threatened to kill herself. And she was later admitted to an inpatient mental health unit before finding a behavioral therapist through Fairfax County Public Schools and the state's Comprehensive Services Act, Ms. Gallagher said.
While Meg's condition has improved, each day can present new struggles if her daughter cannot control her emotions, Ms. Gallagher said.
Her daughter will start hitting and punching, attacking the dog, throwing things across the room, sending her 5-year-old brother into a corner to hide.
Ms. Gallagher, on behalf of the Campaign for Children's Mental Health, requested that the General Assembly fund five pilot programs of crisis-response services for children — one for each of five regions across the state — so they can avoid hospitalization.
Delegate Kenneth R. Plum, Fairfax Democrat, one of the handful of legislators at the hearing, said the state had placed an increased emphasis on mental health after the Virginia Tech tragedy in 2007, in which Seung-Hui Cho, who had a long history of such issues, killed 32 people in Blacksburg before committing suicide. Funding waned, however, as the recession took hold.
"It's not a new problem," Mr. Plum said. "We've been behind. We raised expectations that I think were justifiably expected, but we haven't been able to" follow through.
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