Funding gap threatens mental health network

Crisis: Governor must save a vital system weakened by his starvation budgets.

March 02, 2001

RETURNING FROM a visit to friends and relatives of a slain Eastern Shore policeman, a somber Parris Glendening met last week with mental health professionals seeking emergency funds.

They had come to argue, once again, that public safety depends on a sound mental health system. With two policemen shot recently and a mental patient who refused to take his medication charged, they hardly needed to speak at all.

No one can say with certainty that a fully funded psychiatric system would have spared these two lives. Or that two people killed in Columbia apparently by a mental patient might have been saved. But no one can say the state of Maryland did all it could to provide citizens with the protections of an adequate mental health system. Quite the contrary.

Counting this coming year, Governor Glendening's budgets have left funding gaps totaling $58 million. Add to that the unanticipated demand for psychiatric services, shifting of costs to the state by private insurance companies who refuse coverage, community mental health workers who make one-third less than state workers, and one sees a system on the verge of abandonment.

Meanwhile, three private psychiatric care hospitals have gone out of business because the state does not adequately reimburse them. Another is on the brink. The rest are losing millions. If these hospitals leave the stage, even more pressure will land on the frighteningly overwhelmed public system.

Governor Glendening's personal priorities have been education, environmental protection and the concerns of organized labor. Mental health has not been one of the concerns by which he hopes to be remembered -- or upon which he might build his career after Annapolis.

But the mental health advocates who visited with him last week were impressed by his grasp of their dire circumstances, the vulnerability of the mentally ill and by his feelings for the men who were killed and for their families.

Since then, Mr. Glendening has been in Washington, discussing problems with other governors and with President Bush. Perhaps as he refocuses on Annapolis matters, he will translate sympathy into action.

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