Wednesday, October 24, 2007


PAIR Like Program Begins in Texas

Mental health care expanded for county workers, offenders

Officials see the initiatives as wise investments.

Web Posted: 10/23/2007 10:41 PM CDT

Tracy Idell Hamilton

Bexar County has ramped up its commitment to mental health with initiatives that will help both county employees and mentally ill offenders.
For employees, the county is increasing its health insurance coverage for mental health treatment in an effort to reduce two barriers to getting help — cost and stigma — Commissioner Paul Elizondo announced Tuesday.

"We need to be treating mental illness with the same fervor as cancer or anything else," he said.

Currently, the county's 3,900 employees and their dependents must pay high out-of-pocket costs to see a counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist. Beginning in January, treatment for mental health problems will have the same co-pay as any other doctor's visit.

Employees with untreated mental disorders incur medical expenses more than four times higher than for other employees, and mental health conditions are the second-leading cause of absenteeism, according to Mental Health America of Texas, a nationwide advocacy and educational organization whose chief executive officer praised Bexar County's efforts.

Lynn Lasky Clark said covering employees' mental health care makes good business sense in addition to being "the fair, humane and responsible thing to do."

Elizondo used the announcement to challenge other businesses and municipalities to follow suit.

In a pair of related initiatives, the county unveiled a mental health court and a county-funded program that will help keep indigent, nonviolent misdemeanor offenders out of jail and get them into treatment.

"The largest mental hospital in the county has long been the Bexar County Jail," Elizondo said, with anywhere from 400 to 600 inmates who need treatment at any given time.

The mental health court, similar to a drug court that requires treatment and offers more intense supervision, will be launched with a $250,000 grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance.

Up to a third of the county's criminal docket is made up of mentally ill offenders, said Judge Tim Johnson, a longtime advocate for such a court.

"Many of these people start out with mild mental illness" that is exacerbated by drug use and lack of treatment, Johnson said. Once someone lands in the criminal justice system, the person's situation almost always gets worse, and it becomes more expensive for taxpayers, he said.

Commissioners authorized $1.5 million in their 2007-08 budget to expand programs to keep the mentally ill out of jail.

Charlie Boone, chief operating officer for the Center for Health Care Services, which was nationally recognized last year for its jail diversion program, praised commissioners' actions.

"There is a huge cost when there is not access to mental health care in the community," he said, but more important, "this is a humanity issue."

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