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It sounds like a joke about wacky Californians and our pop-psych fads: According to a news report, tens of millions of dollars in state money meant to treat the mentally ill have been going instead for art and drama classes, Native American sweat lodges and a “mood management” course for Latina mothers.
Funny? It would be if it weren’t true and weren’t such a corruption of voters’ intent.
In 2004, with mental health funds in decline, California voters handily approved a ballot measure calling for a special tax on millionaires to pay for expanded programs to treat the mentally ill.
The tax hike in Proposition 63 wasn’t the solution this paper recommended at the time. But it’s easy to see why 54percent of voters said OK, given how untreated mental illness contributes to crime, homelessness and the inability of good people to lead happy and productive lives.
But in 2007, California mental health officials made a change in the spending plan. They took the 20percent of Proposition 63 funds aimed at reducing the severity and length of mental illnesses for already-diagnosed patients and redirected the money to promote mental “wellness” in apparently healthy people.
This is where the art and drama classes, the sweat lodges and the mood management came in, not to mention programs involving acupuncture, nutrition, gardening, camping and horseback-riding.
The Associated Press reports that of the $7.4billion the millionaires’ tax has brought in, $1.2 billion has
gone to these preventive and early-intervention programs. Meanwhile, state spending on mental health services has continued to slip, and the California Department of Mental Health has been eliminated to save money.
With all of the committees and agencies in Sacramento, it shouldn’t have taken the AP to bring this to the public’s attention.
At least the news has caught the attention of two members of the Assembly Health Committee. One has called for oversight hearings and an audit, the other wants fresh legislation to spell out how the Proposition 63 money should be spent.
These would be healthy steps.
Some state officials think spending $1.2 billion on “wellness” programs is a smart move, including state Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who in his pre-elected-office days co-wrote Proposition 63. The officials say so-called preventative programs really do help to head off mental disorders.
But these programs are not what voters had in mind when they approved another new tax eight years ago. And they are taking money away from direct treatment.
Because few people have the knowledge to say whether or not such programs have as much impact on mental illness as programs aimed at the treating the already ill, it is up to lawmakers to gather experts and data and find out for us.
In another example of headaches created by ballot-box budgeting, California voters decreed that proceeds from a 1percent tax on incomes over $1 million be spent to help the mentally ill. The state literally cannot afford to see any of it wasted on programs that don’t address the problem.
— Los Angeles Daily News