Mental health seeks part of tobacco tax

Mar 18, 2010

By Jim Saunders
3/19/2010 © Health News Florida

Worried about deep budget cuts in mental-health programs, Florida senators are moving to tap more than $40 million a year in tobacco taxes to protect them.

The money would come from a $1-a-pack increase in cigarette taxes that lawmakers approved last year. Supporters of the proposal point to a strong link between smoking and mental health;  one study found that people with mental illnesses or substance-abuse problems smoke 44 percent of the cigarettes in America.

Members of the Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee approved the proposal on Thursday, a week after an initial Senate budget plan called for cutting about $98 million from mental-health and substance-abuse programs. Most of those cuts would affect mental-health services for adults.

George Sheldon, secretary of the state Department of Children and Families, said reducing services would lead to more people with mental-health or substance-abuse issues ending up in jail.

"If we make those cuts in mental health and substance abuse, we can't come back two years from now and pick up those lives,'' Sheldon said.

It is too early to know the extent of cuts that could be included in a final budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The House released an initial budget proposal this week that did not include major cuts in mental-health or substance-abuse programs.

The House and Senate are expected to negotiate differences in their budget proposals next month, before passing a final spending plan.

But the bill would provide a fresh source of money for mental-health programs. It calls for sending 5 percent of the money collected from the new cigarette tax to DCF to expand mental-health services and reduce smoking among mentally ill people.

This year, the cigarette tax is expected to bring in $878.6 million, according to a Senate staff analysis. Five percent of that amount would total $43.9 million.

Currently, all of the money from the new cigarette tax goes into a trust fund that helps pay for Medicaid. If lawmakers approve shifting money to mental-health programs, they would need to find a way to make up for the lost money in the trust fund --- a potential problem as they struggle this spring with an overall budget shortfall of as much as $3 billion.

A House bill also would require using the cigarette-tax money for mental health, but it has not been heard in committee. A separate, budget-related House bill, however, could lead to $9 million being spent on efforts to curb smoking among people with mental illnesses.

During Thursday's meeting, the Senate committee also approved a bill that would put new requirements on the use of psychotropic medications for foster children. The bill stems from the death last year of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers, who hanged himself in his foster parents' home.

Gabriel had been treated with psychotropic drugs, and his death led to reviews of how foster children were being medicated. Valrico Republican Ronda Storms, who is chairwoman of the Senate committee, said lawmakers are making changes to deal with excessive medication of foster children.

"We're not just going to medicate them until they are 18 and dump them into adulthood,'' Storms said.

--Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail.