House speaker focuses on mental health programs

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Eight months after the new Republican House Speaker Tom Leonard announced a mental health overhaul as a top GOP priority, his office is beginning to take aim at a problem that has forced prisons to handle mentally ill inmates for years.

On Monday, Leonard announced a new bipartisan mental health task force led by Republican state Reps. Hank Vaupel of Fowlerville and Klint Kesto of Commerce Township. Vaupel chairs the House Health Policy Committee while Kesto heads the House Judiciary Committee.

Hank Vaupel

The group will meet in July and August to gather more information from experts well-versed in mental health care, rehabilitation programs and job training, according to the task force. But the group is still short on details regarding any specific issues it plans to tackle.

“Holding meetings and visiting facilities all across Michigan will allow us to gather feedback on a wide variety of topics related to mental health care, rehabilitation programs and vocational training,” Kesto said in a statement Monday. “I’m looking forward to learning about programs that are successful and, perhaps more importantly, the programs that aren’t so successful so we can work on fixing the problems.”

In November of last year, Leonard stressed mental health reform as one of his top three legislative priorities but did not divulge any specific problems.

Monday’s announcement comes as the number of Michigan’s mentally ill prisoners continues to grow and drain state coffers. Prisoners with severe mental illnesses can cost an annual average of about $95,000 to incarcerate compared to about $35,000 for an average prisoner without a mental illness.

In December, Leonard suggested large taxpayer savings if the state could bolster programs designed to help people receive psychotropic drugs and other mental health treatment before they wind up in the criminal justice system.

Klint Kesto

About 23 percent of Michigan’s more than 41,000 prisoners are classified by the Department of Corrections as mentally ill, and about 64 percent of county jail inmates according to Gov. Rick Snyder’s office.

The 14-member task force is led by two Republicans but is split between the two parties.

The seven Democrats include Reps. Fred Durhal III of Detroit, Abdullah Hammoud of Dearborn, Robert Kosowski of Westland, Sylvia Santana of Detroit and Robert Wittenberg of Oak Park. Among the other GOP members are Dave Pagel of Berrien Springs and Mary Whiteford of Casco Township.

Leonard’s new mental health task force plans to use the information it gathers during the summer’s public hearings to bring about “more consistency in mental health services across the state” and “better support” for veterans.

The still-unveiled program will give special attention to substance abuse and improving Michigan’s mental health courts. It would also include more training for law enforcement.

“They just want to be really proactive during this time off and mental health has been one of the major priorities in the action plan they released at the beginning of the year,” said Rachel Doane, a Republican spokeswoman.