SENATE APPROVES MASSIVE MENTAL HEALTH CARE EXPANSION
(AUSTIN) — The Senate approved a bill on Thursday that would create what Lt. Governor Dan Patrick called the "biggest package for mental health care ever designed" in the country. He joined bill author and Brenham Senator Lois Kolkhorst at a pre-session press conference to tout the $3.4 billion investment the state is making to increase capacity at mental healthcare institutions around the state. Though spending on mental health care has increased under Patrick's tenure as the Senate's presiding officer, he said more needs to be done. "We do not have enough beds to meet the need," said Patrick. The Senate plan, in conjunction with billions set aside in the state budget, seeks to address a growing capacity shortage in the state's mental health care system. This comes as more and more Texans report mental health problems following the pandemic. "Coming out of COVID 19, it has been a crisis," Kolkhorst said. "We see this with our adolescents, we see it with our adults."
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and Brenham Senator Lois Kolkhorst lay out the Senate plan for what Patrick calls the largest investment in mental health in America.
Kolkhorst told reporters that the state has seen a sharp decrease in capacity at state institutions following the COVID pandemic, going from a shortage of about a thousand beds pre-COVID to nearly 2,500 today. Almost all of them are "forensic beds", which is space required for patients who are being restored to mental competency to stand trial. Another 1,000 are on the waiting list for high-security spaces for patients who pose a danger to themselves or others. Instead, these people are in county and city jails as they await trial or mental evaluation, in some cases for hundreds of days. "I think this is a civil rights issue," said Kolkhorst. "You shouldn't be waiting in jail to have your mental competency restored to wait to go to trial". She said that her plan calls for half of new beds to be "swing beds" that can serve as space for forensic patients, as well as civil commitment as regional needs change. Capacity is only part of the problem, Kolkhorst said that the state has room for another 600 patients, but lacks the personnel to staff it.
SB 26, in conjunction with the state budget, will add just under 1,000 new beds to the state system. Many of the beds are set for underserved rural areas. Institutional staff would get a pay raise of just under 40 percent, which Kolkhorst said is already attracting staff to these positions. The bill includes transparency measures like performance audits and would create a reintegration program for people who transition out of institutional care as they get better. The bill would also direct $100 million in grants to local non-profits and charities to develop innovative programs for adolescent mental health. State officials will also look at the distribution of beds and may relocate capacity depending on need and staff levels.
Patrick called this a big second step in an effort to comprehensively reform the state's mental health care system. He said the first step came in 2015, when Jacksonville Senator Robert Nichols invited him to tour the state facility in Rusk to see how poor the state's institutional care was. "It looked like something out of the movie The Shining, it was built in the 1880's," said Patrick. "We said 'We have to do something.'" That session, the Legislature approved tapping into the state's rainy day fund to pay for refurbishment of the Rusk facility as well as three others, and construction on a new facility in Houston. With a $32 billion surplus in the state's treasury, Patrick said this is a great opportunity to make even more meaningful changes to the state's mental healthcare infrastructure. "The surplus is the peoples' money, it's not our money," he said. "So, how do we get it back to them in all forms, whether it's for retired teachers, healthcare benefits, mental healthcare hospitals, the $350 million we have for law enforcement in rural Texas - this is what we're doing with their money." The Senate plan would build new facilities across Texas, from Amarillo to the Rio Grande Valley. It would refurbish or rebuild a number of facilities across the state. This process will take years; the new wings approved in Rusk back in 2015 are just now starting to open. "But you have to start, and this is the big start," said Patrick.
The Senate will reconvene Monday, April 17 at 11:00 a.m.