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New Report Details Massive Misspending in California's Mental Health Services Act

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A version of the following, by this author, appeared in San Diego Union Tribune on August 15, 2013.

In 2004, California voters enacted a 1 percent tax on millionaires to improve care for people with serious mental illness. It is no doubt some were helped. It is no doubt billions were wasted. These are just some of the findings in a new report, "Proposition 63: California's 10 year, $10 billion dollar bait-and-switch" by Mental Illness Policy Org. According to the report:

Of the ten billion dollars raised, two billion was diverted to social service programs that do not serve people with mental illness; two and a half billion was spent without any oversight; $23 million went to organizations associated with oversight commissioners; regulators prevented funds from helping the mentally ill; politicians enacted 'clarifying' amendments that diverted funds elsewhere; and the most seriously mentally ill continue to be offloaded to jails, shelters, prisons and morgues.

The enactment of Proposition 63 set off a new California Gold Rush with Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) funds replacing bullion. The report shows social service programs in Los Angeles, Sacramento and other counties that worked to help students get better grades, adults find better jobs, the impoverished avoid prostitution, teens avoid crime; gays gain comfort with their sexual orientation; and parents be better at parenting masqueraded as mental illness programs to make themselves eligible for funding. As the Associated Press previously reported, in spite of there being no known way to prevent serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, yoga, horseback riding, wilderness adventure tours, gardens, native and African American cultural centers; line-dancing, drumming, and art shows were declared evidenced based prevention activities and showered with money.

How could it go so wrong? The fox was called out to guard the hen house. Before passage a proponent of Proposition 63 with the California Council of Community Mental Health Agencies admitted voters "didn't want (the act) to fund all mental health, only people that had severe mental illness." After the funds started flowing, he was placed on an oversight commission committee and funds went to members of the trade association.

Senate Leader Pro-Tem Darrell Steinberg originally proposed the legislation by declaring "This measure will provide mental health services to people who need it most." After passage he supported a 'clarifying' amendment allowing funds to be spent on "virtually any aspect of mental health practices." Serious mental illness out. Mental health in. By making it a 'clarifying' amendment he cleverly avoided the two-thirds vote that would normally be required to overturn a voter initiative and became a hero to the mental health community that will only treat those well enough to recognize their need for it. He wants to make this a model for the nation. That would be cruel to taxpayers and people with serious mental illness.

When Monterey county tried to the spend their funds on people with serious mental illness as voters intended, the Oversight commission stopped them cold. These "programs cannot serve people with a mental health diagnosis....(P)lease clarify that these programs include persons without a mental health diagnosis." Massive funding was diverted to studies. And studies of studies. That usually proposed more studies.

A stakeholder process meant to advise county behavioral directors was allowed to trump science, legislative language, and the intent of voters. Mental health and social service providers stacked meetings with constituents who wanted one thing only: to have their own pet projects funded. There were no "stakeholder" meetings in jails, prisons, shelters or psychiatric hospitals where the most seriously ill live. No one represented people with serious mental illness so their voices were never heard. Except in their own heads.

As a result of the bait and switch, people with serious mental illness continue to live under layers of lice infected clothing, eating out of dumpsters, and engaging in shouting matches with apparitions only they can see, voices only they can hear. Laura's Law, a proven program that reduces incarceration, homelessness, and hospitalization among the most seriously ill continues to go unfunded. Moms with desperately ill children remain powerless to get them care. There are almost four times as many mentally ill incarcerated in California as hospitalized. Meanwhile $11 million is going to a public relations agency to convince the public all is well. It's not.

Proposition 63 was an altruistic important attempt by California voters to address a critical issue: the suffering of those who need help the most. California is the only state with enough money to help the most seriously ill. The subversion of voter's benevolence by the California leadership and mental health and social services industries has been nothing less than criminal. Someone should go to jail. And it shouldn't be those with mental illness.

Read the full report, "Proposition 63: California's 10 year, $10 billion dollar bait-and-switch"