Gov. Pawlenty says Minnesota's mental health system needs a dramatic overhaul. He called it a fractured system that doesn't provide enough support for those who desperately need treatment.
"It's confusing to the consumer, it's confusing to the provider. It's disequalizing from a fairness standpoint and we send out block grants and then hope everybody administers them well without much expectation as to the benefits, without much expectation to the performance and frankly without much expectation to the results," he said.
Pawlenty's proposal would spend more money for crisis services, and school based mental health services. It would also ensure better communication among doctors and social service providers who work with the mentally ill.
Many low-income patients say the availability of treatment varies in different parts of the state. Some people who need emergency services in the Twin Cities wait hours or are ferried as far away as Duluth or South Dakota.
Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno says the plan would ensure that patients have equal access to care wherever they live in Minnesota.
"If you live in one county and receive certain services, but if you happen to move you can go to another county and not receive those services because this is to bring up the standard overall statewide but also have a statewide system so you can access the mental health system and needed mental health services regardless of where you live in the state," according to Goodno.
Goodno says making services more widely available would have the added benefit of reducing wait times.
Several mental health advocates were happy that the governor is shining a light on an issue that hasn't received a lot of attention in recent years.
Debra Saxhaug, the executive director of the Minnesota Association for Children's Mental Health, says Pawlenty's plan will help people get treatment when they need it.
"Over the years, we put band aids on problems. What this is actually doing is looking at the problems before they happen. It's helping people find services. I think all in all it will be a wonderful way to start," she said.
The plan would cost $109 million over three years. Pawlenty says he wants to take money from the state's health care access fund, which is used to fund a health insurance plan for the working poor. The fund currently has extra money in it.
The proposal would also use state money that currently goes directly to county mental health services. Both funding sources need legislative approval, and that means the plan could face a bumpy ride. The Senate leader on health care issues fiercely protects the state's health care access fund.
DFL Sen. Linda Berglin of Minneapolis says she'll consider Pawlenty's idea but is skeptical of any proposal that shifts money from one program to another.
"When you take mental health dollars away from one area and then give it to another area, often times you have one hole filled and another hole created," she said.
Others argue that Pawlenty's proposal lacks detail. Katy Boone, who co-chairs a panel that advises Hennepin County on mental health issues, says her group is asking the governor and state lawmakers to study the proposal's impact carefully. She says her group is worried the plan may shift money away from support services that help people with a mental illness get to work, eat and live on their own. Boone says many people with mental illness wouldn't be productive members of society without those added services.
"We're not against more money for mental health, certainly, and we're not against better integration of services. What we're looking for, and we're not trying to be obstructionists, is how this key piece of community support services will be provided," Boone said.
Lawmakers will begin formally reviewing the governor's proposal when they return to the Capitol next week to begin the legislative session.