MENTAL HEALTH; Restore Law's Intent

Article excerpt

Mental illness still has a stigma.

Many insurance plans treat it differently than physical ailments, as if it's not as important.

A recent shocking example: $25 million targeted for mental illness that was siphoned into Florida's general fund.

Here is what happened:

The state of Florida sets aside a specified amount of Medicaid money for treating mental illnesses - and requires that 80 percent of those funds be spent directly on care.

Only the remaining 20 percent is to be used for administration and profits.

However, according to former state Medicaid director Bob Sharpe, HMOs and other health provider organizations haven't always been in compliance.

The worst offender, Sharpe says, is WellCare Health Plans - which claims already to have paid $25 million in penalties for failing to meet the 80 percent threshold.

The money went to the Agency for Health Care Administration, a giant bureaucracy that runs the state's Medicaid program, for reinvestment into mental health programs.

It was never spent on that, however.

The Legislature diverted it to the general fund to help balance the state's budget, says Sharpe, who serves as head of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health.

Who knows how many Floridians with mental illness went untreated because the money was not there?

WHY THIS MATTERS

About one-fourth of all American adults have some kind of mental disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

The state can save a little now by leaving them untreated or under-treated.

But, like any malady, mental health costs a lot more to treat after it has been allowed to fester.

Incarceration and institutionalization, for example, are far more expensive than outpatient psychotherapy.

And there is a clear link between untreated mental illness and incarceration. About half of all prison inmates have mental illness or substance abuse problems, Sharpe says. …