While the Committee on Health, Hospitals and Human Services voted Friday, after hours of testimony, to favorably forward a Behavioral Health Act to the Rules Committee, one senator said her concerns about the bill kept her from voting.
Sen. Alma Francis Heyliger said at the end of the meeting that, though amendments had been made and she supported the general effort, she abstained from voting because she felt more amendments need to be made.
The goals of the act include coordination of agencies that support individuals with behavioral problems and establishing a public behavioral health facility to treat individuals voluntarily and involuntarily who face behavioral health challenges. It also aims to amend and repeal conflicting laws.
Introducing the act, Sen. Novelle Francis said, “Behavior health and how we handle it has been a long-standing crisis in the territory.” He added, “This population cannot wait any longer.”
The first testifier, psychologist Lori Thompson, owner of Insight Psychological Services, named three concerns she had with the measure.
First, Thompson said, “The bill as written will likely bankrupt the territory, as this bill now makes it the Department of Health’s legal responsibility to provide all-inclusive mental health care for indigent members of the territory.”
Second, she named as a concern “the lack of clarity regarding the definition of an “’approved private treatment facility.’”
Third, she pointed to what she saw as “the violation of patient’s rights scattered throughout this proposed bill.”
Thompson said at the beginning of her testimony that the bill was founded on good intentions, but concluded, “It appears that the main goal of this proposed bill is to make another top-heavy layer of bureaucracy over an already stretched and underfunded system.”
Health Commissioner Justa Encarnacion outlined what she thought the act would accomplish. She testified that “the act will build community behavioral health services, develop behavioral health services in general hospital settings, integrate behavioral health services into primary health care, and promote equity and justice.”
Christopher Finch, chairman of the V.I. Government Hospitals and Health Facilities Corporation, commonly known as the Territorial Hospital Board, called the Act “a first step.” He added, “The implementation of all the provisions called for in the bill will take work, time, and an infusion of human capital and financial resources.”
As Thompson before him, he was concerned about possible laxity in when a patient could be restrained and recommended clarifying language and limiting who could approve restraint.
Francis said it was not a perfect bill and added, “Let’s not let perfect get in the way of good. This is a good bill.”
Senators present at Friday’s committee hearing included Francis Jr., Marvin Blyden, Kenneth Gittens, Heyliger, Janelle Sarauw, Donna Frett-Gregory, and Genevieve Whitaker.