When Larry Lee went missing from a personal-care home in Falmouth, both state legislators from his hometown of Lebanon joined in the search.
Lee, 32, was found dead a month later, near the Licking River not far from the Falmouth Nursing Home, where he had lived a couple of months. Police do not suspect foul play; he apparently just left.
Lee, who sustained a childhood brain injury and later developed schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, had lived for three years at a Somerset program for people with brain injuries. When that program closed, he was moved to Eastern State Hospital in Lexington and then to Falmouth.
In the wake of his death, Sen. Jimmy Higdon and Rep. Terry Mills, who searched for Lee, are vowing to seek reforms that would, as Mills said, "make it better for people like Larry."
Never miss a local story.
Making it better for people like Larry Lee will require leadership and political will.
Kentucky has long neglected its mental health system. Per capita spending on mental health in fiscal 2008 was $54, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's State Health Facts. Only five states spent less. The national average was $121.
West Virginia spent $79, Tennessee $98 and North Carolina $198 per capita, nearly four times as much as Kentucky, on mental health services.
One of Kentucky's most severe needs is more residential options, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which gives Kentucky an F in its report card on health care for adults with serious mental illness.
Melissa Knight, Lee's sister, said that when she went to the Falmouth Nursing Home after her brother's disappearance, a single staff member was overseeing more than two dozen residents.
Any move to require more staff in nursing and personal-care homes will meet richly financed resistance from the long-term care industry. At least that's been the case as Kentuckians for Nursing Home Reform has battled, to no avail, for state-mandated staffing standards for long-term care facilities.
Higdon raised a very good point when he questioned whether taxpayers are getting good value for the public money that's being spent in personal-care homes. His concern is especially valid for residents who have mental illnesses, developmental and other kinds of disabilities and brain injuries.
Admittedly, there's not a lot of money to work with. A resident's Supplemental Security Income payment is only about $670 a month; the state may also provide a monthly stipend of less than $500.
It's worth asking whether that money could be used to build a better system for caring for people like Larry Lee.
Higdon, a Republican, and Mills, a Democrat, are interested in creating a task force to explore issues raised by Lee's death. We hope they succeed.
Such a task force should not stop at issues related to personal-care homes but also examine the array of weaknesses in Kentucky's mental health system and search for ways to make it stronger.