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Casey DeSantis talks mental health and substance abuse at the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast in Venice. Image via the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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Casey DeSantis showcases mental health services during COVID pandemic

State agencies joined in highlighting their services as mental health funding becomes a question in the upcoming budget.

First Lady Casey DeSantis highlighted the mental health services Florida is providing for free amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Mental health advocates have seen the First Lady as an ally throughout her husband’s term. In a Wednesday news release, she and the Governor’s Office highlighted more than a dozen state and national services from seven state agencies and beyond providing mental health assistance during the pandemic.

“Mental health must always be an important point of emphasis in disaster response and recovery — especially for individuals already suffering from mental health issues, individuals affected by the disaster directly and health care workers and first responders,” DeSantis said. “In Florida, I am proud of the steps being taken by several state agencies during the COVID-19 public health emergency to offer mental health services and support.”

To expand and spread the news about behavioral health services, state agencies have coordinated with the Division of Emergency Management (DEM), under the direction of Director Jared Moskowitz, and Department of Health (DOH), under Surgeon General Scott Rivkees.

“We are committed to eliminating disparities in the availability and accessibility of mental health programs for all Floridians, including those engaged in essential activities,” Rivkees said. “Our teams of public health professionals, health care providers, and first responders will have access to these effective mental health resources to stay healthy as they work to keep our state healthy during this unprecedented time.”

DOH is directing people to the National Disaster Hotline, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Employee Assistance Programs and Florida 211. For first responders and medical workers, the department is highlighting the Physician Support Line and Talkspace, which is providing free, confidential care to physicians and physicians in training.

DEM spotlighted the work throughout the pandemic by Disaster Recovery Mental Health Coordinator Darcy Abbott, the first person to hold the office advocated for by the First Lady. Her role included coordinating with state agencies, nonprofits, treatment providers, health care associations and other community partners to disseminate resources and counseling services.

“We know how important mental health is for our recovery as a state. That’s why, at the direction of the First Lady, Florida has set an example nationally for mental health response,” Moskowitz said. “We will continue to work every day to make sure Floridians have the resources they need to recover, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.”

But with the Governor facing questions on where to cut up to $1 billion from the $93.2 billion spending plan, mental health and substance abuse advocates are wondering whether to read the unprecedented announcement from the First Lady as a sign of support from within the administration or an early apology.

Much of the state’s behavioral health budget is tied up in nonrecurring revenue that’s been approved year after year, a relic of prior administrations, the Great Recession and House budget rules that keep nonrecurring project funding in that pot. For the 2020-2021 fiscal year, Florida TaxWatch is recommending the Governor veto all member projects that don’t benefit the people of Florida. And if behavioral health services don’t get the same priority as other health care projects, crisis stabilization beds, substance abuse services and other central services could be slashed from the state’s expenses.

According to the Wednesday news release, the Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) has waived service limits on behavioral health under the state Medicaid program, allowing for more than 26 hours of individual therapy and family therapy per year. AHCA is also expanding behavioral health telemedicine services and prior authorization requirements for medicine and services under Medicaid.

“At AHCA, our fundamental priority throughout the public health emergency has been to ensure those we serve remain connected to community supports and continue to have access to quality care during these trying times,“ said the agency’s secretary, Mary Mayhew.

The Department of Elder Affairs and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs are also promoting specialized services such as preloaded MP3 players or robotic pets for seniors with Alzheimer’s disease and Related Dementia and the VA COVID Coach app to support self-care and overall mental health.

Department of Children and Families (DCF) Secretary Chad Poppell highlighted the $2 million in emergency federal grants for crisis intervention services, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and other related recovery supports for children and adults. The department also said the time to access telehealth care has decreased from seven days to two days on average.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education has also shifted its services online with virtual webinars and connecting districts and schools with local services. And together with DCF, both agencies are highlighting the Child Abuse Hotline to help combat abuse, which teachers are trained to identify in the traditional classroom setting that has been scrapped since March.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the need for compassion, grace, and solid planning, access and infrastructure that can withstand unexpected catastrophes that simultaneously disrupt lives and increase the need for these services,” Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran said. “Florida is very fortunate to have First Lady Casey DeSantis’ dedication and commitment to ensure every Floridian has the access and support they need as we recover together.”

Written By

Renzo Downey covers the Florida Legislature for Florida Politics. After graduating from Northwestern University in 2019, Renzo began his reporting career in the Lone Star State, covering state government for the Austin American-Statesman. Shoot Renzo an email at renzo@floridapolitics.com and follow him on Twitter @RenzoDowney.

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