Black, Barker plan mental health reforms for 2014
© Prince William TimesState Sens. Dick Black (R-13th) and George Barker (D-39th) do not have much in common when it comes to social views but both are making mental health reforms a top priority for the 2014 session of the General Assembly.
Black and Barker offered their views during separate phone interviews last week, both discussing the stabbing of state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-25th) by his son Gus Deeds, who police said then killed himself with a gunshot,
"It highlighted for me something I think was a long-standing problem for how difficult we have made it to place people in protective custody if they appear to be a threat to others because of mental illness," said Black, who lives in Loudoun County but represents a district that includes parts of western Prince William County.
The first-term senator and former delegate mentioned he is offering a bill to extend the amount of time a person deemed dangerously unstable could be detained from six to 48 hours.
Deeds had custody of his son after officials could not find an open bed at regional psychiatric facilities, though they later found out some existed.
"While there will be plenty of protections for anyone who is placed in protective custody, we just, you know, we've got to eliminate that barrier that makes it so cumbersome, that makes it extremely difficult to get dangerous people held if they have dangerous mental conditions," said Black.
Such an extension is likely to be more needed in vast rural areas without nearby psychiatric facilities, such as Bath County along the West Virginia border where Deeds lives, than in urban, suburban or exurban areas.
"I don't believe here in Northern Virginia that a single person hasn't gotten a bed that's needed it," said Barker, later adding, "I think it's inexcusable for us as a commonwealth for us to tell someone, 'You're a threat ... but we're sorry, we couldn't find a bed for you.'"
That scenario requires the person to be released.
Black mentioned his support last session for funding additional beds at a planned new psychiatric facility in Prince William County.
Barker said he hoped to work with Black on his emergency custody order bill in order to "substantially expand" the allowable time.
The second aspect of reform brought up by Barker would increase the time of a temporary detention order issued by a magistrate from 48 hours to 72 hours, a recommendation unanimously supported by the Governor's Task Force on Campus and School Safety.
"I expect that will be adopted this year," said Barker.
He also mentioned that providing additional funding to support people who are moved to outpatient care would be a preventative measure designed to keep them from "getting to a crisis" level before needing treatment.
"(More) beds are not necessarily the answer," said Barker, explaining that some psychiatric facilities are not operating at capacity.
Black and Barker agreed that further limiting access to firearms for the mentally ill isn't going to happen given that Virginia already does have laws restricting firearms from people who have been held in detention and committed to a psychiatric facility.
Virginia tightened its laws after the 2007 shooting massacre at Virginia Tech, which preceded the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting massacre in Connecticut last December.
Combined, the two shooting sprees left 61 people dead, including the gunmen and the Connecticut shooter's mother.
"I don't think it's an access-to-guns issue. I think you've got people who are so absolutely dangerous it's clearly recognized and they need to be in a mental institution rather than walking around in the streets," said Black.
Barker concurred, adding, "(We) don't want to say everyone who has a mental health problem" is going to be a threat to society and can't own guns.
"The system is not going to be perfect," said Barker.
Perhaps the biggest battle of the upcoming General Assembly session will focus on whether to expand Medicaid access in Virginia under the federal health care reform law.
Democratic advocates say that 400,000 Virginians could then receive health insurance coverage. Republican opponents say it costs too much.
Barker and Black line up with their respective political parties viewpoints on this.
"If Medicaid expansion were to go through, it would be the greatest welfare program since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society program," said Black. "And I think we have expanded welfare enough in this country and we need to get back to a free market economy."
During an interview last month, state House Majority Whip Jackson Miller (R-50th) echoed a talking point of Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) from the gubernatorial campaign that it's hard to trust that the federal government would live up to promise to fully fund expanded Medicaid coverage for the first three years and then pay 90 percent of the cost in subsequent years.
Barker mentioned that the Virginia legislature already passed a conditional measure that would allow the commonwealth to drop out of an agreement with the federal government if the feds did not pay their stated share.
He also argued that not taking opting into the program would mean Virginia would be stuck at its current 50-50 share agreement for Medicaid.
Under the new program, for "every $1.70 from the federal government, we put in 1 penny," said Barker.
As of Dec. 8, the five state senators who represent Prince William County in the upper chamber had pre-filed few bills. State Sen. Chuck Colgan (D-29th), who generally devotes most of his time in session to helping craft budget amendments as a member of state Senate Finance Committee, did not file any.
State Sen. Toddy Puller's (D-36th) first bill is designed to enable "uniformed-service voters outside of the United States to return voted military-overseas ballots securely by electronic mail or fax."
One of the big bills being carried by state Sen. Richard Stuart (R-28th) and two other Republican state senators is the repeal of the annual $64 fee on hybrid vehicles, a provision in the 2013 transportation bill designed to pump billions of dollars into various projects throughout the commonwealth.
State Del. Scott Surovell (D-44th) authored the repeal bill co-sponsored by eight other House Democrats.
It stands a chance at passing too given that there is bipartisan support for it and McAuliffe said during the gubernatorial campaign earlier this year that he did not favor that particular provision of the transportation bill that became law despite supporting the overall broader legislation that contained it.
Stuart has two other law and order bills in dealing with who is mandated to give DNA samples upon arrest and another centered on repealing the state Supreme Court's authority requiring a $25 annual fee for members of the Virginia State Bar "to be deposited in the Clients' Protection Fund."
Meanwhile, Black's first bill requires all school textbooks "approved by the Board of Education to note that the Sea of Japan is also referred to as the East Sea."
While the International Hydrographic Organization officially recognizes the body of water as the "Sea of Japan," North Koreans and South Koreans alike have asked for a name change over the years to no avail.
Black explained his link to the Korean community as stemming from flying Koreans "into battle in Vietnam" and "carrying their bodies and their causalities when we left."