Florida lawmakers approve changes in mental health funding

Lawmakers pump $65 million into making parts work together


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Funding for mental health treatment has been decreasing in Florida, even though the economy has been improving, and it took the case of Phoebe Jonchuck being thrown to her death off the Skyway bridge to get Florida lawmakers to reverse course.

As lawmakers investigated Jonchuck's death at the hands of her father and the failure of the Department of Children and Families to act, lawmakers discovered a dysfunctional system that didn't always communicate.

"We realized that mental health and substance abuse were such key drivers in child abuse," Rep. Gayle Harrell said.

At the forefront is a new "no wrong door" policy.

"Something happened to someone on the street. Police officers pick up someone, maybe drunk or having a problem. It wasn't really clear who was supposed to take care of them," said Mike Hansen, president of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health.

Now it will be, as lawmakers pump $65 million new dollars into making the parts work together.

"To work with our court system, to work with our jails, juvenile justice system, coordinating everything is the key to seeing the improvement we want," Harrell said.

Lawmakers approved a 7 percent increase in funding for mental health. That's a big increase, but still just a drop in the bucket when it comes to need, advocates say.

They say a minimum of at least $200 million is still needed just to make a dent in the problem.

"This is just the first step, and we need to continue fine-tuning and, more importantly, we need to identify sources of revenue to fund these services," Hansen said.

While only a small step forward, it's a step that lawmakers weren't willing to take before Jonchuck's death and other tragedies, advocates say.

Under the bill's "no wrong door" policy, someone with mental or substance issues must be stabilized and then sent for appropriate treatment, rather than being refused services because he or she was taken to the wrong facility.