- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2006

RICHMOND (AP) — Virginia has embarked on the most extensive review of its mental-health laws in decades.

As part of the review, 25 key mental-health professionals will dissect state laws and policies to see whether they have blocked access to care, transformed jails and prisons into warehouses for the mentally ill and limited a system in need of money and space.

Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell Sr. will oversee the effort with Richard J. Bonnie, a law professor at the University of Virginia.

“The question is: How can we use the law most effectively to get people the help they need, when they need it?” Mr. Bonnie said.

The Chief Justice’s Commission on Mental Health reform will produce a mental-health reform package for the 2008 General Assembly session.

Judge Hassell last year said the problems are: The court system is swamped by nearly 50,000 involuntary mental-commitment hearings a year; jails and prisons are full of mentally ill prisoners who are barred from getting treatment; and community care has had to handle 90 percent of the state’s once-institutionalized mentally ill people.

Mary Ann Bergeron, executive director of the state’s umbrella organization of community service boards, said the strain from the demand for increased outpatient services could be placed on local mental-health providers.

“Currently in Virginia, no community service board would be able to provide an intensive array of services without significant additional resources or a significant diversion of resources from other service areas,” said Mrs. Bergeron, who will be on the commission.

Mary Zdanowicz, executive director of Arlington’s Treatment Advocacy Center and another board member, said Virginia’s archaic laws linking care to a person’s level of dangerousness must be changed.

Community service boards must assess services based on danger-level criteria such as the number of previous commitments or psychotic breakdowns.

Judge Hassell has said he is aware of the conflict and pressures that can pit civil liberties against mandated care.

He also said last year that reforms must “balance the provision of care with respect for patients’ rights and public safety consideration.”

The cost of change also will be considered.

“I hope we will be able to do evaluations of what the various policy options will cost,” Mr. Bonnie said. He also said the commission will show legislators that filling in the gaps in service will reduce the cost of commitments and reduce costs in the legal system.

Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said Virginia has been steadily transforming its system from a focus on inpatient treatment to community-based treatment.

“The end results may be very positive, but a lot of people have fallen through the cracks,” he said. “Virginia desperately needs something like this.”

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