It is hard to believe that we are already entering our third week of session. Floor debates are starting to get longer (and more interesting) as bills move their way through the committees. Senator Petersen and I are looking forward to sharing what is going on in Richmond and answering your questions at our Town Hall meeting on Saturday, February 1st from 9:00 to 10:30 a.m. at the Fairfax City Hall. We hope you can join us!
I am also happy to announce that I will be holding my second annual Constituent Day on Monday, February 17th. We will meet at 10:00 a.m. and then visitors will get a behind-the-scenes tour of the General Assembly Building and the State Capitol. Send me a quick email at [email protected] if you are interested in attending.
I appreciate the many responses that I received regarding HB848, which would allow Dominion Virginia Power to assess a small additional fee to recover the cost of undergrounding significant portions of its infrastructure to increase power reliability. The feedback was generally favorable - with a few important caveats. The first concern was to make sure that the benefits would be felt here in Northern Virginia and that we weren't simply sending money to other parts of the state. Dominion confirmed that over a quarter of the undergrounding projects will be here in Northern Virginia. A second concern was that if we are being asked to pay more now, customers should be able to share in the long-term savings. While the more immediate pay-off will be to businesses and residents in the form of quicker restoration time, customers will also enjoy long-term savings under the rate review process established by the State Corporation Commission. The bill passed the House 95 to 1 this past Thursday with me voting yes.
Another major issue on which I have received a great deal of communication is the proposed repeal of the extra tax on hybrid vehicles. The tax was part of the transportation funding compromise enacted last year. While I did not support the hybrid tax, I voted for the package with the understanding that we had a better chance of repealing the tax than having another opportunity to pass a comprehensive transportation bill. I am pleased to say the House voted to repeal the tax this past Thursday. The measure now goes to the Senate, where identical legislation has already passed.
Mental Health System Reform
This year the General Assembly is tackling much needed reform to our mental health system. While the need for reform has been widely acknowledged, the issue took on additional urgency when Senator Creigh Deeds was stabbed by his son, who then took his own life. Hours before the tragedy, the son had released from custody after a psychiatric bed could not be found within the state-mandated time limit. A 60-Minutes interview with Senator Deeds on his efforts to fix the system can be found here.
Lack of funding is an important factor - and the Governor's introduced budget includes $38 million for mental health. It is important to note that this infusion of funding essentially places Virginia at the same level of support for mental health services before major cuts during the recent recession. However, in addition to funding, there are important structural reforms that need to be addressed.
The area receiving the lion's share of attention is how long someone in crisis can be held against their will under an emergency custody order. It is during this period when a person is evaluated and a determination is made whether the individual should be held for treatment pursuant to a temporary detention order. Current law allows a person to be held under an emergency order for four hours, with the potential for a two hour extension. If a psychiatric bed cannot be found in that time frame, the individual is free to leave even if the situation hasn't been stabilized. According to a report released by the University of Virginia School of Law, it took more than six hours to find a bed in 3.2% of cases. That is a relatively small percentage, but it means that our system is failing a significant number of real people who are in the greatest need. While there is wide agreement that an emergency custody order should be longer than six hours, there is significant debate over how long that time period should be extended.
A second issue is how to ensure that available beds can be easily identified. Currently, psychiatric services must be identified by calling individual hospitals and facilities - a process that takes a lot of time. Virginia has been working on a real-time digital registry for several years. This is an absolute priority and will be essential to ensuring that individuals in need are linked with services in the least time possible.
Finally is the issue of how to treat mental health in the long-term - both to reduce the prevalence of reoccurring mental health crises and to keep those with mental health issues from ending up in our local and regional jails. A jarring statistic is that about 24% of the inmate population is known or suspected to be mentally ill. Nearly half of the mentally ill population has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness.
I want to thank the many constituents who have sent me emails and letters to advocate on behalf of this important issue. If you are interested in seeing what kind of bills have been introduced this session, the Virginia Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health Illness website has a tracking chart of all legislation broken into topic areas. You can download the chart by clicking here.
Please don't hesitate to contact me if I can be of assistance or if you have any questions! It is also not too late to fill out my 2014 Constituent Survey. I will be sharing preliminary results at my Town Hall meeting next Saturday!