Candidates, community members discuss health care, Medicaid cuts

State-run mental health care facilities cannot admit patients with some illnesses, such as dementia.

State legislative candidates discussed mental health Wednesday evening with members of the community who, through their work, come in frequent contact with the issue.

The Columbia chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness extended open invitations to candidates running for representative districts 21 through 25 and the 19th senatorial district.

Candidates for the 19th district, Democratic incumbent Chuck Graham and Republican challenger Kurt Schaefer, both attended. Only one other Republican candidate, Rep. Therese Sander, R-Moberly, was present.

In a departure from normal candidate forums, the candidates heard remarks from several speakers who, by virtue of their professions, commonly deal with issues of mental health.

Paul Robinson, director of Adolescent Medicine at University Hospital, discussed disparity in health care between mental health issues and most other ailments.

"Some people who need mental health work won't get it because they are embarrassed," Robinson said. "They wouldn't be embarrassed if they had asthma or a stomach virus."

Lynne Barnett, assistant superintendent of student support services for Columbia Public Schools, said students with mental health complications are a major issue for the school district.

"I hope that we can find ways that children and families can access mental health they need without so much red tape," Barnett said. "We just need it to be more accessible without fighting for days and days. It's just totally inappropriate that (legislators) have to fight for care for children."

Deborah Bester, executive director of Phoenix Programs, an organization providing services to people with substance abuse issues, said the mental health community will look to the legislature to help with the issue.

"I do think that it is the responsibility of these folks that are elected to help serve the constituents," Bester said. "I don't believe that people are satisfied with the state of health care in Columbia, Mo. I think we are going to be looking at creative solutions together."

During the candidates' responses, some were able to relate to the issue of mental health through personal experiences.

Graham and Schaefer each said they had a sibling who has dealt with mental illness, and 23rd district candidate Stephen Webber, who served two tours in the Iraq war with the Marines, said fellow soldiers struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Democratic candidates, as well as several of the speakers at the forum, criticized budget cuts made to the state Medicaid program in 2005 by Republican Gov. Matt Blunt. They cited the cuts as a source of problems for mental health treatment in the state.

Cynthia Keele, who directs the Missouri chapter of the mental illness alliance, said Blunt's cuts went far too deep.

"The Blunt administration has been hostile to people with disabilities, including those with mental illnesses," she said.

Keele, as well as several of the other speakers, said disparity in health insurance policies results in patients being handled by health insurance providers, depending on if their illness is a mental one or affects other parts of the body.

Mary Still, the Democratic candidate for the 25th district, said some Missourians could not afford basic health services as a result of the cuts.

"I think the government exists to serve the common good," Still said.

Webber said those in attendance should stop the candidates before they walk out of the forum and get them to "make a commitment" toward mental health issues.

"We will speak out against the people who cut Medicaid," Webber said. "We will, given the opportunity, work to restore those cuts."

The Republicans present at the event said they support the cuts.

Sander, who served in the House when the cuts were approved, said legislators "have to make hard decisions" in terms of budget allocations, and that Democrats' criticisms against the cuts at the forum were "partisan."

Schaefer said the cuts were "extreme," but said recipients that did not meet certain criteria were cut, and more recipients have been added to Medicaid rolls since the cuts.

"Its not just a Medicaid issue," he said. "It's a health insurance issue. There are people at every socioeconomic level that need mental health care." 


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