State Senate Panel Clarifies How Laura’s Law Can Be Funded

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The state Senate Health Committee Wednesday unanimously approved legislation making it clear that state mental health funds can be used for the court-supervised outpatient treatment of adults with serious mental illnesses allowed by Laura’s Law.

The committee also approved a bill that would allow counties to limit the number of adults with severe mental illness who are treated under the 11-year-old law.

Both issues have been seen as major roadblocks in the effort to persuade the Orange County Board of Supervisors to adopt the law named after 19-year-old Laura Wilcox, who was killed in 2001 by a Nevada County man with a severe, untreated mental illness.

Laura’s Law allows the court to order involuntary outpatient treatment for severely mentally ill adults who refuse voluntary treatment and who appear at risk of hurting themselves. Nevada is the only county in the state that has adopted the law while others avoid it because of philosophical and cost reasons and fear of lawsuits.

It became a significant local issue after the July 2011 beating death of mentally ill transient Kelly Thomas at the hands of Fullerton police. Thomas suffered from untreated schizophrenia, but as an adult the 37-year-old could refuse treatment, and there was little his family could do, family members said.

When questions were raised regarding the law following Thomas’ death, the county counsel’s office told county health officials they don’t have the legal right to use Proposition 63 money to implement it.

The bill, authored by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, specifies that counties may use money from the 2004 ballot proposition to support Laura’s Law. It was sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 9-0 vote.

Steinberg indicated during his testimony, broadcast on the Internet via the California Channel, that more state money for severe mental health issues may be included in the upcoming state budget.

He told the committee it was important “to put this issue [of whether Proposition 63 money may be used for Laura’s Law] behind us so the mental health community can unite and fight for more money.”

This week the Sacramento Bee reported that Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Nevada is dumping patients in California, including 28 in Orange County in recent years. The Bee reported that the Nevada hospital put the patients on buses without ensuring they would receive treatment or housing.

During an interview last week, Orange county Supervisor Todd Spitzer  noted that untreated mental illness may have played a role in several violent acts that have rocked Orange County in the past two years.

He mentioned, among other tragedies, the October 2011 murder of eight people at a Seal Beach hair salon and the February rampage this year by former Los Angeles Police Officer Christopher Dorner followed days later by 20-year-old Ali Syed’s killing spree from Ladera Ranch and along the 55 Freeway that left four dead, including himself.

Spitzer, who is working to create a memorial at an Irvine park to victims of violence, said he hadn’t fully decided his position on Laura’s Law but said he’s seen the impact of untreated mental illness because a relative has had to struggle with it.

As a lawyer, he said, he’s also sensitive to the issue, because “for so long the system has basically incarcerated people as opposed to ‘this person needs help.’ ”

But, he said, in recent years the public has become more educated and “understanding” of mental health issues, and as a result more money is being directed toward treatment “as opposed to just inaction.”

Supervisor John Moorlach, head of the county’s Commission to End Homelessness, has led county efforts to work with Laura’s Law, which requires approval by the supervisors.

He said in an interview last week that he talked with Steinberg about language making it clear that counties could use the Proposition 63 money, which comes from a 1 percent tax on income above $1 million.

“I’m encouraged,” he said of Steinberg’s bill. But, Moorlach said, the Proposition 63 money won’t cover costs incurred by the courts and the public defender’s office, which county officials have estimated at $1 million to $1.4 million a year.

However, Nevada County officials said after their county implemented Laura’s Law, there were substantial savings in hospital and jail costs. Orange County health officials haven’t estimated cost savings.

In addition to Steinberg’s bill, the Senate Health Committee approved by a 7-2 vote a bill by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, that allows counties to limit the number of cases they handle each year under Laura’s Law. Orange County’s lobbyists backed both the Steinberg and Yee bills.

If the two measures clear the Senate and the Assembly and are signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the county may begin a pilot program with a few patients.

“It’s [Laura’s Law] a tool,” said Moorlach. “If we can afford it, why not give it a try?”

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracyVOC.

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