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Congressmen team up to address mental health care

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SARASOTA, Fla. -- Suncoast Congressman Vern Buchanan is teaming up with Pennsylvania Congressman Tim Murphy to try and reform the nation's broken mental health care system.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 22 million Americans live with a severe form of mental illness, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression. Proposed legislation hopes to address challenges affecting those who are mentally ill and their caregivers.

Tuesday, Suncoast residents brought their concerns of mental health care services to a town hall meeting at New College.

“Well, I just want to make sure that people, if they have issues, that they can find the right places to attend to get help.” Psychiatric nurse Rachel Parios says people hesitate going for treatment. “Because they don't have insurance money, and there isn’t coverage and the treatment is expensive.”

Buchanan and Murphy are co-sponsors of the proposed landmark mental health bill, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, H.R. 3717, which addresses fixing federal policy many say is broken. “I think the big thing is, we're spending for mental health $125 billion, the taxpayers in the country. The thought is, how do we better use those funds to help people here in the community?” says Buchanan.

He says one of the aspects of the bill is accountability. His solution? “Cutting out, not spending more money, but better using the $125 billion.”

Congressman Murphy, also a practicing psychologist, says this is what likely happens to many with mental illness. “We have found that generally what happens to the severely mentally ill are ten times more likely to be in a jail cell than a hospital bed.”

Proposed legislation addresses fixing the shortage of hospital beds, which decreased from 600,000 in the 1940's to only 40,000 nationwide today.

The bill increases access for the most critical patients. “The homeless, we've been talking about that for fifteen twenty years I know in this community, and it's something that I think this bill will go a long way to address.”

Buchanan says besides jail cells or the ER, we don't have a lot of other options for the homeless here locally. “So our goal is to figure out how to better deal with that.”

One Suncoast resident may have an answer. “I just think we need several shelters, we need shelters to deal with each of these different problems, with like a residential situation for people to stay as long as they need help,” said Frank Hedy.

Buchanan says this bill will go a long way. “But we need to do more locally. We're a passionate community, but at the same time we have merchants and residents that want to feel safe downtown.”

Following the introduction of this bill, two agencies, SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration) and the National Institute of Mental Health, agreed to start working together.

Congressman Buchanan urges Suncoast residents to go online, look at the mental health bill and reach out with their comments.