The state of Florida says it will ask a judge to throw out a lawsuit alleging Floridians with mental illness are kept isolated from society. The disability-rights advocacy group that filed the suit says the state needs to do more to get people out of mental hospitals.
Florida Supportive Housing Coalition President Shannon Nazworth summarizes the lawsuit like this: “People who want to leave and are ready to leave and are capable of leaving the institutions are being basically forced to remain because there is no community-based care to serve them.”
Her nonprofit group’s members provide affordable housing for people living with disabilities. She says a large percentage of clients have mental illnesses, and most providers have waitlists.
“We have people all over the state who are in desperate need of an affordable place to live with some supports. They are either in the institutions, or if they don’t get into the institutions, they are homeless. They are forced to live on the streets,” she says.
Jay Reeve is CEO of Tallahassee’s Apalachee Center, a nonprofit community mental health provider serving seven Panhandle counties. Reeve agrees the backlog in the state’s three mental hospitals is enormous.
He says, “For instance, recently we were informed by the state that there were no male beds available at Florida State Hospital for the foreseeable future.”
He says when that happens, patients who need long-term treatment end up staying in the Apalachee Center’s crisis stabilization unit, but that’s only intended as a short-term solution.
“That puts pressure on our system to move people out more rapidly. It puts pressure on the emergency rooms and it puts pressure on law enforcement. And it just kind of breaks the whole system down,” he says.
Both Nazworth’s organization and Reeve’s could receive more money if the suit is successful, even though they’re not party to it themselves.
The lawsuit filed in federal court by nonprofit advocacy group Disability Rights Florida says about 250 people whose doctors say they’re cleared for release from mental hospitals have nowhere else to go. The suit also claims other patients who should be served in their communities are being sent to hospitals.
Advocates say these patients should have other options, including group homes and staying in their own homes with the help of a program called Florida Assertive Community Treatment, or FACT. Reeve says the Apalachee Center’s FACT team travels wherever clients need them.
But longtime mental health advocates say state money for community-based care like that is almost nonexistent, even in the best economic times.
Florida Council for Community Mental Health Vice President Karen Koch says, “When there’s money we get no increases, and when there’s a decrease, we lose money, so we’ve never really won this battle.”
The council is a statewide association of providers. This year, Koch lobbied the Legislature for $100 million in funding for preventative, crisis-response and residential mental health care. But she says no new money for adult services was allocated, cementing Florida’s ranking as one of the worst states for per-capita mental health care funding.
“When they’re in the institutions, it’s easy for them [lawmakers] to ignore some of these individuals and their lack of rights. I mean basically, their rights are being taken away from them right now,” she says.
But she says the Legislature’s lack of funding community mental health services isn’t because the state Department of Children and Families, which runs the mental health system, isn’t trying. A budget request filed with the lawsuit shows the department itself has identified people seeking treatment outside mental hospitals and requested more funding for their release.
Koch says the suit, like similar ones filed in Ohio and Georgia, is a way to make the Legislature confront the issue. That way, she says, “Families don’t feel that they have put their child or their spouse away, that they can feel comfortable working with the community and keeping them at home.”
The Department of Children and Families and the Agency for Health Care Administration, or ACHA, are named as defendants in the case. Spokespeople for both agencies say they have not yet been served with the suit.
ACHA spokeswoman Shelisha Coleman says the agency plans to file a motion to dismiss the case but declined further comment.