Panel considers involuntary, court-ordered outpatient treatment for mentally ill; foe says would infringe on personal rights

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News

Representatives from five groups involved in mental health offered legislators solutions June 15 for ending the revolving door between hospitalization, incarceration and homelessness that often exist for those with severe mental-health conditions.

Many who spoke at the three-hour meeting of the  Interim Joint Committee on Health and Welfare said judges should be able to order mentally ill adults who meet strict criteria into an “assisted outpatient treatment” program. Others said that would add costs and a burden to the judicial system, and infringe on personal liberties. But all agreed that the state lacks resources to care for such adults.

Shelia Schuster, executive director of the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition, voiced strong support for the idea. She said its main goal would be to create a narrowly defined program “to access supported outpatient treatment under a court order, again without having to be involuntarily committed or coming through criminal justice system.”

Now, a mentally ill person who needs care but does not want it can only be court-ordered into treatment after being released from a hospital or jail.

Various versions of this legislation have have been filed in the General Assembly since 2013. Last year’s version, House Bill 94, passed out of the Democrat-led House, but died in the Republican-led Senate. The bills are often referred to as “Tim’s Law,” named for Tim Morton, a schizophrenic who was hospitalized involuntarily 37 times by his mother because this was the only way she could get him the treatment he needed. Morton died in 2014.

“We do want to make sure that those individuals, like Tim Morton, who are very ill and who are unable to recognize it, who spend much of their lives in the revolving door of hospitalization, homelessness, or incarceration, are afforded a new opportunity to stay in treatment long enough to see the positive effects and the road to recovery,” Schuster said.

Steve Shannon, executive director for the Kentucky Association of Regional Programs, said the state needs assisted outpatient treatment to keep those with mental-health conditions out of the criminal justice system.

“If we can keep a person out of criminal justice involvement, it is better for them, ” he said. “Folks have enough challenges already; why add that piece to it? . . . It affects housing, it affect employment.”

Shannon also proposed that the state seek a Medicaid waiver to help pay for housing and supported employment for such adults, and a spend-down option to allow the poor on Medicare to also get Medicaid, which offers more services.

Jeff Edwards, division director of Kentucky Protection and Advocacy, who supports does not support Tim’s Law said “assertive community treatment” teams are already available to this population, but only on a voluntary basis. He also noted that the ACT program is laden with issues, including geographical access, wait times to get services, and frequent staff turnover.

“Right now, you have to live in one of 56 counties to get the ACT services,” he said. “We have to expect quality services, no matter where a person lives in the state.”

Ed Monohan of the Department of Public Advocacy, a long-time opponent of the court-ordered treatment model, said  he supports enhancing the ACT teams, which provide a comprehensive array of community supports to this population through individual case managers who are available 24 hours a day.

“Long-term, engagement with clients, with people, is a far superior long-term strategy than coercion through a court system,” Monohon said. “The mental-health system, rather than the court system, is the better place to really address this long-term. … Their liberty is at stake with this coercion.”

“I know it is about civil liberties and the rights of individuals, but for them, in the disease process, they have lost the ability sometimes to make those decisions clearly for themselves,” said Rep. Addia Wuchner, R-Florence, after sharing deeply personal stories about a family member who had severe mental illness.

During an impassioned plea of support for Tim’s Law, Kelly Gunning, director of Advocacy National Alliance on Mental Illness in Lexington, told the story of how her son, while under the care of an ACT team, “brutally assaulted” both her and her husband in January. She emphasized that while the ACT program does offer a “robust array of services,” it is based on voluntary compliance.

“They are voluntary. Do you hear me? They are voluntary! If my son doesn’t want to open the door for his ACT team, or his doctor who comes to his home, he doesn’t have to,” she said. “And (as) we were cleaning out his home, we found a years stockpile of medication untouched, untaken because he doesn’t believe he has an illness.”

Allen Brenzel, clinical director with the state Department for Behavioral Health, Development and Intellectual Disabilities, along with many others at the meeting, acknowledged that a lack of resources is a large part of the problem.

“I mostly hear unity around the issue that we must do better,” he said, adding that not only assisted outpatient treatment is needed: “It’s going to be the allocation of resources and the moving of resources to appropriate places.”

Committee Co-Chair Sen. Julie Raque-Adams, R-Louisville, encouraged the group to examine this issue “holistically” and committed to working on a solution. “Across the board, this is one of those issues that we can no longer stick our heads in the sand and ignore,”‘ she said.

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