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Legislative Priorities

NAMI is the nation’s for individuals and families affected by mental illness. With 26 affiliates in Florida, NAMI provides education, public awareness and advocacy on mental illness.


2019 Legislative Session Summary
May 14, 2019

Alisa LaPolt, Lobbyist
NAMI Palm Beach/NAMI Advocacy Group


The 2019 session of the Florida Legislature adjourned on Saturday, May 4, a day later than scheduled due to delays in the state budget. Lawmakers passed and sent to the governor a $91.1 billion budget, the largest budget in state history. It includes $75 million in funding for schools under the Mental Health Assistance Allocation created after the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018.

The budget was funded in part with $125 million from the Sadowski Trust Fund, which is set aside for affordable housing needs. A broad range of groups united as the Sadowski Coalition are urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto the Legislature’s plan to use the housing money elsewhere in the budget.

Housing for individuals with mental illness was among the three priority issues for the NAMI Advocacy Group, a coalition of mental health advocates including Mental Health America and NAMI Florida affiliates led by NAMI Palm Beach. The other priority issues were parity in insurance coverage for mental illness and efforts to increase the number and availability of peer specialists.

The NAMI Advocacy Group’s legislative efforts were led by lobbyist Alisa LaPolt. Below is an overview of key bills and advocacy efforts by the group.


Housing

HB 253 by Rep. Michael Gottlieb and SB 670 by Sen. Kevin Rader would have created an Independent Living Task Force to review incentives for the construction of safe, affordable housing for individuals with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

Under the bill, task force membership would include representatives of the construction industry, local governments, mental health treatment providers, NAMI Florida, and other stakeholders.

Through its lobbyist, the group was able to influence some changes in the bill: the shift in emphasis from assisted living to supportive housing; moving task force oversight from the Agency for Persons With Disabilities (which oversees developmental disabilities, not mental health) to the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, and other changes.

HB 253 unanimously passed all three of its House committees and passed 114-1 on the House floor with the lone “no” vote cast by Rep. Mike Hill (R-Pensacola). The Senate version, SB 670, passed two of three committee assignments. It was placed on the agenda for the Senate Rules Committee but did not get heard. As a result, the bill died at the end of the legislative session.

Despite the outcome, the NAMI Advocacy Group gained significant visibility at the Capitol regarding its advocacy of this bill.

First, the bill was inspired in part by a member of NAMI Broward who met with Rep. Gottlieb while he was on the campaign trail. As such, the NAMI Advocacy Group was considered the lead on this legislation.

Second, the group and its lobbyist created allies with the Florida Assisted Living Association; a major assisted living facility owner; and other groups who publicly supported the bill, which included the United Way of Broward County, the Florida Association of Counties, and the Florida Association of Cities. Third, a new relationship was established with the Florida Housing Finance Coalition and its special needs housing division.


Peer specialists

HB 369 by Rep. Mike Caruso unanimously passed the House and Senate and awaits the governor’s signature into law. The bill creates voluntary certification for recovery residences (“sober homes”) and administrators, and restricts referrals between licensed treatment providers and non-certified recovery residences. The impetus for the legislation, five years in the making, was a Sober Home Task Force created by the Palm Beach State Attorney’s office. The Senate sponsor of the bill was Sen. Gayle Harrell.

The bill also creates in law, for the first time, a definition of “peer specialist” that is consistent with the guidelines of the state Department of Children & Families. Under HB 369, a peer specialist is “a person who has been in recovery from a substance abuse disorder or mental illness for at least two years and who uses his or her lived experience to deliver services in behavioral health settings to support others in their recovery, or as a person who has two years’ experience as a family member or a caregiver of a person with a substance abuse disorder or mental illness.”

Oftentimes peers are disqualified from obtaining their peer specialist certification because they cannot pass a background check. The bill provides an exemption for individuals convicted of low-level crimes such as theft, prostitution, and forgery. The bill:

  • Requires a level 2 background screening for peer specialists with direct contact with individuals receiving services, and including the disqualifying offenses;
  • Expands the crimes for which an individual can receive an exemption from disqualification without a waiting period in certain circumstances;
  • Gives DCF the authority to grant exemptions to individuals seeking their certification;
  • Requires DCF to render a decision on exemption applications within a specified timeframe; and
  • Allows an individual to work under supervision for up to 90 days in certain circumstances while

DCF evaluates an exemption application.

Through its lobbyist, the NAMI Advocacy Group publicly supported the legislation in its committee stops.

Similar bills addressing peer specialists, however, did not pass. SB 528 by Sen. Daryl Rouson would have required DCF to grant exemptions to individuals seeking peer specialist certifications but were convicted of low-level crimes. The bill was not heard in its final committee stop. And HB 1187 by Rep. Cyndi Stevenson went a step further and included Florida’s First Episode Psychosis programs in DCF’s system of coordinated care for individuals with mental illness (there are seven pilot sites).

In her closing statements on the House floor bill, Rep. Stevenson stated that the idea for the bill came from a presentation at NAMI Florida’s annual conference in September 2018. The bill unanimously passed the House but the Senate did not take it up.

The NAMI Advocacy Group reached out to most if not all members of the Florida Legislature and asked them to support the bill. During House discussion of HB 1187, Rep. Anna Eskamini noted calls of support from her local affiliate, NAMI Greater Orlando.


Mental Health Insurance Parity

HB 307 by Rep. David Silvers and SB 360 by Sen. Daryl Rouson would have required state Medicaid plans to report to the Agency for Health Care Administration the manner by which they cover benefits for mental health treatment and services. The legislation would have also required group health insurance and individual plans to provide mental health services as required under federal law.

At the request of Rep. David Silvers, Alisa and NAMI Advocacy Group leader Helen Trainor of NAMI Palm Beach participated in a meeting with the bill sponsors and representatives of the health insurance industry. While industry representatives questioned the need for such legislation, the NAMI team brought forth numerous stories from individuals whose mental health treatments had been reduced or denied by insurance plans.

The legislation, which has been filed during past legislative sessions, did not receive a committee hearing during the legislative session. As such, it did not pass.


School Mental Health — SB 7030 Implementation of Legislative Recommendations of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission

SB 7030, which addresses the school safety and security recommendations of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. On May 8, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the bill into law, despite outcry from parents and gun control advocates who opposed the bill’s provision to allow teachers to become armed school “guardians” trained by local law enforcement.

This bill builds upon SB 7026 passed by the Florida Legislature in 2018 following the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Last year’s bill required students, upon registering in a new school district, to “note previous school expulsions, arrests resulting in a charge, juvenile justice actions, and referrals to mental health services the student has had.” SB 7030 clarifies that the student needs to only report mental health services referred by the school district arising from school expulsions, charges or juvenile justice actions.

It requires the state Board of Education to develop, no later than August 1, 2019, a standardized, statewide behavioral threat assessment instrument for use by all K-12 public schools and evaluate, by August 1, 2020, each school district’s and charter school governing board’s behavioral threat assessment procedures.

The NAMI Advocacy Group supported portions of the bill that expands the Mental Health Assistance Allocation (increased from $69 million to $75) million by allowing school districts to use the money to train educators and other school staff in detecting and responding to mental health issues and connecting children, youth, and families who may experience behavioral health issues with appropriate services.

To qualify for the funding, school districts must develop a plan that includes:

  • A multi-tier approach to getting assessments, diagnoses, intervention, treatment and recovery services for students in coordination with their primary care and mental health providers;
  • Direct employment or contracting with a variety of mental health providers to reduce the ratio of students to staff in alignment with nationally recommended ratio models. These providers include, but are not limited to, certified school counselors, school psychologists, school social workers, and other licensed mental health professionals;
  • Strategies to increase the amount of time that school-based student services personnel spend providing direct services to students based on school or student mental health assistance needs;
  • Contracts or interagency agreements with one or more local community behavioral health providers or Community Action Teams to provide a behavioral health staff presence and services at district schools. Services may include, but are not limited to, mental health screenings and assessments, individual counseling, family counseling, group counseling, psychiatric or psychological services, trauma-informed care, mobile crisis services, and behavior modification. These behavioral health services may be provided on or off the school campus and may be supplemented by telehealth.
  • Policies and procedures that will ensure that students who are referred to a school-based or community-based mental health service provider for mental health screening and assessment of students at risk for mental health disorders occurs within 15 days of referral. School-based mental health services must be initiated within 15 days after identification and assessment, and support by community-based mental health service providers for students who are referred for community-based mental health services must be initiated within 30 days after the school or district makes a referral.
  • Strategies or programs to reduce the likelihood of at-risk students developing social, emotional, or behavioral health problems, depression, anxiety disorders, suicidal tendencies, or substance use disorders.
  • Strategies to improve the early identification of social, emotional, or behavioral problems or substance use disorders, to improve the provision of early intervention services, and to assist students in dealing with trauma and violence.

SB 7030 also requires the Board of Education to develop rules for transferring records of students who transfer to another school. The transfer must take place within three days. Records shall include:

  • Verified reports of serious or recurrent behavior patterns, including threat assessment evaluations and intervention services.
  • Psychological evaluations, including therapeutic treatment plans and therapy or progress notes created or maintained by school district or charter school staff, as appropriate.

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