California offered as national mental health model

SACRAMENTO — In response to the killing of schoolchildren in Connecticut, the federal government should consider California's strategy for dealing with mental illness, experts and lawmakers said Thursday.

The Mental Health Services Act passed by voters in 2004 levied a special tax on high-income residents to pay for housing, medication, therapy and other services.

The tax has helped more than 60,000 Californians. A fifth of the money is dedicated to prevention and early intervention, though The Associated Press reported in August that tens of millions of dollars had gone to general wellness programs for people who had not been diagnosed with any mental illness.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said the act that he championed has been effective in promoting early and broad-ranging intervention.

He sent a letter to Vice President Joe Biden, urging him to consider California's experience as he seeks ways to increase mental health resources and avert violence.

On Wednesday, President Barack Obama instructed Biden to oversee the administration-wide review that also will consider gun control legislation and ways to keep society from glamorizing guns and violence.

The federal government should match money raised in California and other states to create the foundation of a national mental health system, Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento, said at a news conference.

The $1 billion in annual funding has been offset as other California programs have lost hundreds of millions of dollars due to budget cuts elsewhere in the system.

Jessica Cruz, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-California, praised Steinberg's proposal but said the nation should do even more to provide adequate funding for mental health services.

Biden's office had no immediate comment, but the proposal was backed by lawmakers including Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, who has introduced the Excellence in Mental Health Act. Her legislation would support community mental health services and make them eligible for Medicaid reimbursement.

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