Gov. Jerry Brown has signed several pieces of legislation this month aimed at fixing or improving access to mental health services in California, while vetoing one bill that promised to reimburse student loans for mental health professionals working in "shortage areas."
Brown has until Sept. 30 to sign bills passed by the Legislature last month.
Two bills signed by the governor seek to increase transparency and use of county mental health dollars provided through the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), which generates close to $2.2 billion each year. Senate Bill 688, authored by Sen. John Moorlach (R-Costa Mesa), requires counties to fill out what he called "apples-to-apples" budget reports that make it easier to figure out how counties are spending mental health funds.
"Each of the counties watch their counterparts closely, and when there's innovation, it should be mimicked," Moorlach said in a Sept. 15 statement. "And when there's waste, it should be called out. Consistent accounting leads to better accountability."
Senate Bill 192, authored by Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) and signed by the governor last week, sets up a "reversion account" for MHSA dollars to be reallocated when counties fail to spend down the money provided by the state for mental health care services. An audit report earlier this year found many counties were sitting on tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in unspent MHSA money, including $133 million here in Santa Clara County.
Assembly bills approved by the governor this week include AB 2022, proposed by Assemblyman Kansen Chu (D-San Jose), which requires public schools to notify parents and students of mental health services available on campus and in the community at least twice per year, using a mix of hard-copy and electronic messaging. A previous version of the bill required that all public schools have "at least one mental health professional for every 600 pupils generally accessible to pupils on campus during school hours," but that language was struck from the bill in April.
"By providing our kids and families with information about available mental health services, we will destigmatize and connect more kids to critical resources," Chu said in a statement Tuesday. "I am grateful to the governor for his support."
Assembly Bill 2639, put forward by local Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto), requires schools serving middle- and high school-age students in the state to review and update suicide prevention policies every five years. The bill puts a particular emphasis on what he calls "high risk" groups including LGBT students, youth bereaved by suicide, students with disabilities and homeless and foster care students.
"This is critically important as youth suicide rates continue to rise," Berman said in a statement. "The health and safety of our students is paramount and these policies better equip schools to recognize the warning signs and make the appropriate referrals for help."
In the same vein, Brown also signed SB 972 by Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge), which requires public, private and charter schools to print the National Suicide Prevention Hotline number on student ID cards. Portantino said that the number should foster an open dialogue about suicide, and that it would be worth it if "one life can be saved through this bill."
Despite the widespread support for mental health legislation, Brown ultimately vetoed a bill proposed by Assemblywoman Anna Caballero (D-Salinas) that would have provided grants to offset the cost of student loans for psychiatric nurse practitioners and physicians working in a psychiatric setting in "publicly funded facility or a mental health professional shortage area."
A recent report by researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found that behavioral health workers are in short supply across California, and that the state's workforce of psychiatrists -- 45 percent of whom are over the age of 60 -- is expected to decrease by 34 percent between 2016 and 2018. Santa Clara County has fewer than 27 psychiatrists per 100,000 residents, lower than San Mateo and San Francisco counties, and even fewer psychiatrists licensed to treat kids and teens, which requires additional years of education.
In his veto message, Brown wrote that the state's existing reimbursement fund for mental health professionals is already strained, and would be made worse by the bill because it doesn't designate any additional funding.
"The loan repayment fund referenced in this bill lacks the necessary funding to pay for the hundreds of applications it currently receives," Brown said in the message. "Adding more applicants as this bill requires just compounds the problem."