Without debate, the Republican-led General Assembly overwhelmingly voted Wednesday to override all four of Republican Gov. Matt Bevin’s vetoes, including one veto that would have doomed a popular bill meant to assist the mentally ill with outpatient treatment.
The swift override votes were “absolutely not” meant as a slap at Bevin by members of his own party, said Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown.
“It is a signal to the citizens of Kentucky that our constitution works,” Thayer said. Even with the GOP in control of Kentucky’s state government, “there still is going to be the opportunity” for the legislative branch to disagree with the executive branch, he said.
The rescued bills include House Bill 540, which will create state regulations for drones; a portion of House Bill 471, which will give lawmakers control over how a multimillion dollar legal settlement with Volkswagen will be spent; and Senate Joint Resolution 57, which will name roads and bridges around the state in honor of various people.
But the most attention was paid to Senate Bill 91, also known as Tim’s Law, which is intended to help mentally ill individuals break the cycle of homelessness, jail and involuntary hospitalization. Dozens of mental health advocates, many of them wearing red shirts and carrying signs, lobbied lawmakers outside the Senate and House chambers in support of Tim’s Law.
Tim’s Law will let certain mentally ill Kentuckians be ordered by district court judges into outpatient medical treatment, a step shy of institutionalization, with public defenders representing them at hearings and caseworkers monitoring their daily progress.
Judges could order treatment for someone at a community mental health agency after getting a petition from the person’s family, friends or legal guardians or from law enforcement or medical professionals. If the person refused to cooperate, then the judge could order him involuntarily committed to a hospital.
The measure is named for Tim Morton, a Lexington man who was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment dozens of times over 36 years, often involuntary and in police handcuffs, because he did not recognize that he had schizophrenia. When Morton wasn’t held inside Eastern State Hospital, he spent his days aimlessly walking the streets.
Morton died in 2014 from long-neglected health problems at the age of 56.
In his veto message, issued Monday, Bevin called Senate Bill 91 “well intentioned” but said it “would set a dangerous precedent.”
“It would allow the commonwealth to restrict the liberty of individuals based on nothing more than a finding that they are ‘unlikely to adequately adhere to outpatient treatment on a voluntary basis,’” Bevin wrote. “Not only would this permit the restriction of liberty for individuals who have not committed crimes and do not pose a threat to anyone, but it would do so based on speculation about what might happen or might not happen in the future.”
Morton’s mother, Faye Morton, on Wednesday took issue with Bevin’s concern over civil liberties. Her son did not recognize that he was mentally ill, and without medical intervention, he was left to suffer a miserable existence, she said.
“Tim wasn’t capable of making a decision about treatment,” said Faye Morton, who rallied in favor of Tim’s Law outside the Senate chamber with other mental health advocates. “He died from serious neglect because of his mental illness, not realizing that he benefited from treatment. I would hope that we could prevent that for others, for the few who do not realize they have a mental illness.”
Another Tim’s Law supporter at the Capitol was Richard Owen, a retired Lexington police captain. Owen said he was frustrated during his law enforcement career by his inability to help the mentally ill.
“You picked up someone who was clearly experiencing mental health issues, you took them to Eastern State Hospital, they might be there for a day or two, and then they were right back out on the street again. It just repeated,” Owen said.
“I went to a wake three years ago for a girl I used to see all the time around Lexington,” Owen added. “She was mentally ill and she lived on the streets. She would run from the police, sometimes right into traffic. I used to call the cabinet and beg them to get her treatment, but there wasn’t any option available for her. She had very few people in her life. It was heartbreaking.”
Apart from being the right thing to do, Tim’s Law would save Kentucky money, said Sheila Schuster of the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition.
Involuntarily committing someone to a state hospital costs $800 a day in state funds, Schuster said. But outpatient treatment and medication costs far less — about $2,000 a month — with the federal government covering most of it through Medicaid, she said.
“Forty-four states are already doing this, so we’re not exactly blazing a new trail here,” Schuster said. “In fact, I would say we’re bringing up the rear.”
By some estimates, as many as half of the people who suffer from mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, don’t recognize that they’re sick — a condition known as anosognosia — and so they refuse the treatments that could stabilize their thoughts and behavior. These people can end up homeless, commit suicide, land in jail repeatedly for nuisance crimes or, on rare occasions, lash out violently.
Kelly Gunning, a mental health advocate from Lexington, knows firsthand the dangers posed by people who don’t realize they need help. She and her husband were attacked last year by their adult son, who has bounced between jail and psychiatric hospitals.
Families need to have a chance in these cases to ask a judge for assisted outpatient treatment for their loved ones, Gunning said Wednesday.
“The reality is, if Tim Law’s had been enacted, we could have utilized the support of that law to get our son into treatment sooner as opposed to later,” Gunning said. “We want folks treated at the beginning of an episode, just like with cancer or any other chronic illness. Stage one, not stage four. What the law now requires is that someone spiral down into stage four symptoms before they can get any help.”