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Mental health providers push for progress

Some Virginia mental health experts are concerned the heavily debated issue of Medicaid expansion may overshadow larger issues in the commonwealth’s mental health system.

In competing versions of a two-year, $96 billion budget proposal, the House of Delegates recommended a $48 million investment toward mental health services compared to the Senate’s $60 million offering.

But less than four months after Sen. Creigh Deeds (D-Dist. 25) lost his son to mental illness, some suggest the legislative efforts on both sides of the aisle are inadequate.

Virginia Association of Community Services Boards Executive Director Mary Ann Bergeron advocates the state’s 40 Community Service Boards, which collectively provide public sector mental health care. She says the money being allocated for mental health services is lacking despite the legislature’s good intentions.

“We think [mental health in Virginia is] a multi, multi-million dollar problem,” Bergeron said. “We have a long way to go. We’ve put some things in place, and we certainly know what works. The problem is there are huge gaps in the solution.”

The gaps may be unavoidable at this time, Bergeron said, because the state simply doesn’t possess the resources to effectively combat mental illness in a constantly growing population. More than 1 million adults in Virginia suffer from a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness Virginia chapter, and many low-income individuals lack the means to treat their illness.

Medicaid expansion — a debate that has caused continuous tension between the Republican-dominated House and Democratic Senate — is one potential remedy for the issue, Bergeron said. However, extending health coverage to an estimated 400,000 currently uninsured Virginians may not be as easy a fix as some suggest.

Under the Senate’s proposal, an estimated 400,000 Virginians would receive health coverage through a private entity known as Marketplace Virginia.

Dr. Roy Stefanik is the mental health director at Fairfax Mental Health, a private provider in Northern Virginia. He says Medicaid expansion, even through the private sector marketplace, could potentially uncover new problems for a state struggling to compromise on budget priorities.

“Although Medicaid expansion may be helpful in increasing insurance benefits, the dilemma you run into is trying to find providers who accept it,” Stefanik said.

The other question with Medicaid expansion is whether or not the federal government will be able to maintain funding.

The disagreement has resulted in an impasse, in which the two chambers are butting heads trying to compromise on a state budget. To this point, Republicans haven’t been receptive to Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s repeated efforts to push Medicaid expansion, and the government will shut down if a compromise isn’t reached by July 1.

— Colin Kennedy, Capital News Service

Whistleblower protection advances in Senate

Whistleblower protection moved forward last week after the Senate voted in favor of House Bill 728, which would make it illegal to terminate an employee for reasons related to that person’s exposure of waste, fraud or abuse.

“Intimidation and threats are a problem when it comes to quashing the willingness of a public employee to look after the taxpayers,” said Del. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Dist. 31) who introduced three bills on this topic—House Bills 728, 731 and 739.

The legislation is important to people like Henry Lewis, a former Alexandria architect who won his whistleblower case against the city last year, after a jury decided his 2011 termination violated the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, passed shortly before Lewis lost his job.

Lewis is represented by attorney Zachary Kitts, who said he told legislators, including Lingamfelter, he thought the legislation was needed.

“There’s a risk that a defendant can say ‘99 percent of the reason that we terminated this person’s employment was because they complained about fraud against the government,’” Kitts said, “But they could say 1 percent was a lawful reason and they could win the case based on that.”

Lingamfelter also introduced House Bill 731, which would shift liability onto the agent who illegally terminates a whistle-blower, in addition to the institution itself.

HB 731 was defeated twice in the Courts of Justice Senate committee by tie votes.

Co-Chairs of the Senate Committee on Courts of Justice Henry L. Marsh, D-Richmond, and A. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, did not respond to requests for clarifications as to whether the bill would be voted on for a third time early this week.

HB728 awaits the signature of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe. HB739, which was designed to clarify that deputy sheriffs are covered by the act, was left in committee.

— James K. Galloway, Capital News Service

Wolf-dog crossbreed ban awaits signature

Owners of wolf-dog hybrids may have reason to worry in the near future, as both the Senate and the House have approved Senate Bill 444 authorizing any locality to prohibit, by ordinance, the keeping of hybrid canines.

A senator from Williamsburg proposed the bill because of an incident that occurred last year in his district.

“A dog-wolf hybrid broke out of its backyard and killed the neighbor’s household pet,” said Jeff Ryer, press secretary for the Senate Republican Caucus. “The responding officer had to shoot the canine on site, and it was big news.”

There have been several other incidents involving dog-wolf hybrids in Virginia over the past few years. Despite these incidents, owners of hybrid canines think the General Assembly should consider the animals that aren’t aggressive or involved in such attacks before passing this bill.

“My housemate had a half-husky, half-wolf dog,” said Courtney Pain, a former VCU student. “He was so sweet and was even afraid of my beagle. Because he was a big dog, some people were scared of him, but all he’d ever do is lick them, which changed their opinion.”

If the governor signs the bill, hybrid-dog owners such as Pain’s housemate could have some difficult decisions to make if their localities decide to pass the ordinances prohibiting the keeping of dog-wolf hybrids. Ryer says if owners are caught breaking such an ordinance, there will be legal consequences.

SB 444 now awaits a signature from Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

— Jessi Gower, Capital News Service