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Published: Friday, 5/12/2006

Michigan lawmakers of a mind to promote mental health

LANSING, Mich. - Michigan's mental health system badly needs fixing. That is one of the rare things the two parties in the Michigan Legislature agree on these days.

And there even seems to be a chance something will happen to help improve it this year, thanks to a bipartisan effort that has led to the introduction of a package of bills in the last few weeks.

"This would be a very welcome development. The system is badly broken," said C. Patrick Babcock, who headed the Michigan Mental Health Commission, an ad hoc body created by the governor two years ago which recommended a broad array of reforms.

"We need to get serious about investing state money to make sure there is an equitable distribution of mental health services across the state," so that you can get the same services in Monroe County as in the Upper Peninsula, said Mr. Babcock.

If anyone knows the mental health picture in Michigan, it is he. Not only did Mr. Babcock chair the commission, he is a former director of the state department of mental health. In fact, he's held five cabinet posts under both Republican and Democratic governors.

His view, which is widely shared, is that Michigan was once a leader in enlightened mental health services, but began to go off the track in the early 1990s. That was when the deinstitutionalization move was on the march, and Gov. John Engler closed state mental health facilities across the state.

Nobody is talking about opening new hospitals, at least not yet. But one of the main thrusts of the current reform movement is to require insurance coverage "parity." That means health insurers would have to offer the same coverage for mental health services as they do for physical services. State Sen. Beverly Hammerstrom (R., Temperance) is leading the fight for parity in the state Senate.

Another package of bills in the state House is designed to improve and streamline the structure of Michigan's mental health system, improve and define the rights of mental patients in the state, and make it easier for people in need to get services earlier. There, two Oakland County legislators, state Rep. Fran Amos (R., Waterford) and Andy Meisner (D., Ferndale), are leading a bipartisan push.

These reforms are really essential, said Mr. Babcock, who estimates the state's mental health system has 100,000 clients.

"Anywhere you go you see people on the streets, in the cities, who are in need of mental health assistance," said Mr. Babcock, who thinks Michigan now ranks near the bottom in terms of mental health care. "More and more resources are being cut, facilities being closed, doors being closed on people who need the resources the most."

But what chance do these bills have in a cash-strapped state during an election year? Mr. Babcock has been around Lansing long enough to know that it is unlikely the entire array of bills will pass, at least not this session.

Not surprisingly, some of the current mental health bureaucracy is likely to oppose streamlining the system.

However, he thinks there is a good chance that parity might pass, despite the opposition of insurance company interests. That's a main goal for Senator Hammerstrom, who, thanks to term limits, is serving her last year in the Senate. "We need to change the way people think about mental illness," said Mr. Babcock.

Too often, they want to avoid thinking about it at all.

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Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox has made going after "deadbeat parents" a main thrust of his administration.

Now, he's taking on "deadbeat tobacco."

Eight years ago, the nation's tobacco companies reached a monumental Master Settlement Agreement in which they agree to pay billions to most of the states, including Michigan and Ohio, to settle and ward off potential health liability lawsuits.

This year, however, the tobacco companies withheld almost $30 million they were supposed to pay Michigan, saying they can do that because they are selling less tobacco. Mr. Cox says that is outrageous, and vows to sue every one of the firms.

The agreement appears to say that the only way they can withhold funds is if the state isn't diligent in going after illegal sellers of tobacco, and the attorney general says he has been.

He thinks the tobacco firms are acting like a man who starts making less money and thinks he should be able to reduce his car payment.

To be sure, Mr. Cox is running for re-election and could use a popular issue, especially after last year's bizarre scandal in which he admitted an extramarital affair and accused Geoffrey Fieger of trying to blackmail him over it. But it is hard to be sympathetic to big tobacco, and harder to see why it shouldn't live up to the agreement.



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