Legislature should override Bevin’s veto of mental health bill

The late Tim Morton of Lexington with his mother, Faye Morton.
The late Tim Morton of Lexington with his mother, Faye Morton.

Lawmakers should override Gov. Matt Bevin’s veto of a bill allowing judges to order outpatient treatment for mental illness.

This humane option is available in almost every state and has long been sought by advocates for the mentally ill in Kentucky, including Kelly Gunning, whose adult son has bounced between psychiatric hospitals and jails. Despite her futile efforts to get him help — “we know when he is spiraling down” — he is in jail now. Under the delusion that his parents were conspiring against him, he violently assaulted them last year, using a rock as a weapon.

“Our son’s freedom was not protected — he’s in jail,” said Gunning, a leader of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Lexington and a supporter of Senate Bill 91, which lawmakers overwhelmingly approved only to be surprised by the veto.

Bevin’s veto explanation — that the law “would set a dangerous precedent that would threaten the liberty of Kentucky’s citizens” — is overwrought and wrong.

The narrowly drawn legislation would affect only a strictly-defined group of people who have severe mental illnesses. It would safeguard their liberty by helping them avoid jail and involuntary hospitalizations. A judge could order outpatient treatment only in cases in which someone:

▪ Has been diagnosed with a serious mental illness.

▪ Has been involuntarily hospitalized for mental illness twice in the last 12 months.

▪ Fails to recognize his or her own diagnosis and treatment needs.

▪ And when outpatient treatment is the least restrictive option.

In addition, a mental health professional would have to certify that the law’s requirements had been met. An extremely high bar, not, as Bevin seems to fear, a slippery slope to thought-police knocking down our doors.

In his veto message, Bevin notes that Kentucky already has laws for involuntarily committing those who are a threat to themselves or others. By then they have spiraled dangerously deep into their illness, but often receive only 72 hours of hospital care, never more than a few weeks.

SB 91 would allow intervention before people become dangerous and help them stay on their medication long enough to gain stability and clearer thinking. A family member, professional, law enforcement officer or friend could petition district court for a treatment order. The local mental health agency would prepare a treatment plan and monitor progress. Noncompliance could result in hospitalization.

The bill is dubbed “Tim’s Law” for the late Tim Morton of Lexington who had schizophrenia and was hauled away in handcuffs to Eastern State Hospital 37 times because his family and police had no other option.

The law would not be implemented until Kentucky secures funding, which should be easy. The 21st Century Cures Act, enacted by Congress last year, increased grants for assisted outpatient treatment programs “to help break the revolving door cycle” of jails, hospitals and homelessness.

Kentucky’s underfunded public defenders have protested that SB 91 would increase their already intolerable caseloads. Public defenders participate in involuntary hospitalization proceedings, therefore would know the clients in outpatient hearings. Their mental health caseloads would likely lighten if more Kentuckians could stay in their homes and receive timely treatment in their communities.

Lawmakers got this one right; they should override the veto.