Home Mark Obenshain: Ethics and mental health reform

Mark Obenshain: Ethics and mental health reform


obenshain2Now that the General Assembly has adjourned, there’s time to reflect on what the legislature did and didn’t accomplish this past session. Last week, I reviewed some of my own legislation, and in a future email, I’ll spend some time on the issue that is forcing us into special session—Medicaid expansion—and offer my thoughts on meaningful reforms we can and should undertake to expand access to care in Virginia without signing on to the expansion of Obamacare here in the Commonwealth.

But today, I want to talk about some of the other work of the General Assembly, most notably in the areas of ethics reform and mental health. Both issues became much more pressing due to the events of 2013; sadly, while we would ideally tackle such issues anticipatorily, it sometimes takes a demonstration of the problem to spur the General Assembly into action.

Virginia has long relied on the principle of disclosure, not limitation or prohibition, when it comes to gifts—and campaign contributions as well. The idea has been that the voters can decide whether or not a gift or campaign contribution constitutes undue influence, aided, no doubt, by the attack ads of the opposition. Unfortunately, recent events demonstrated that those disclosure laws were too lax, that they had too many loopholes and insufficient consequences for violations. The public trust was violated.

During my bid for Attorney General, I outlined my plan for ethics reform, including a ban on gifts to elected officials of more than $100, and extending that cap—and the disclosure requirements—to members of the elected official’s household. I also called for a reevaluation of the penalties and sanctions for failure to disclose, which I believe are insufficient, and offered several proposals for reforms specific to the Attorney General’s office.

I wasn’t afforded the opportunity to implement the reforms I sought for the Attorney General’s Office, but this session, as a member of the Senate of Virginia, I copatroned SB 649, omnibus ethics reform legislation. The bill creates a Virginia Conflict of Interest and Ethics Advisory Council, caps cumulative gifts from any individual or entity at $250 and lowers the threshold for disclosure to $25 (from $50), increases the frequency of disclosure filing to twice a year (from annually), and, crucially, expands applicability of state ethics and disclosure laws to elected officials’ households.

The bill does not do everything I wanted it to do, but it is a significant step in the right direction, and will help to restore confidence in the process—a confidence that has been justifiably shaken in the last year or so.

We also made significant progress on the vitally important issue of mental health reform this session. Although there had been previous efforts to tackle the deficiencies in the state’s approach to mental health, it became tragically evident this past year that the 2003 System Transformation Initiative and 2008’s Mental Health Law Reform Initiative did not go nearly far enough, and that necessary changes were being undertaken way too slowly.

Since 2008, efforts have been underway to enhance our focus on early intervention, step up our shift toward community-based care, and reform—and increase funding for—service delivery mechanisms. But as the tragedy with Senator Deeds and his family showed, we are a long way off from where we need to be.

Fortunately, with Senator Deeds’ leadership, the General Assembly passed meaningful legislation on mental health services this year. His SB 260, which incorporates the bills and efforts of many other legislators as well, requires a digital registry of available acute care beds to be maintained so that individuals subject to a temporary detention order are never released simply because there’s nowhere to send them, and a related budget amendment provides additional funding for thirty new acute care beds, ten each at three hospitals across the Commonwealth.

The bill also extends the time under which a person can be held under an emergency custody or temporary detention order (from 4 to 8 hours under an ECO, and from 48 to 72 hours under a TDO), requires the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to work with Community Service Boards to ensure that patients in need of services have a place to go, and charges the new Governor’s Task Force on mental health services with studying the current involuntary admission process and the possibility of developing new regional crisis stabilization units to better assist those in need of services.

The General Assembly also overwhelmingly adopted legislation affirming the rights of free speech and religious expression for students at public colleges and universities, and made adjustments to the Standards of Learning—eliminating, among other things, history and science SOL tests in the earlier grades. (I am opposed to eliminating these SOL requirements, for reasons I have outlined previously.)

These are just a few of the many actions undertaken by the General Assembly this year, but they are among the most significant. In a future email, I plan to offer my thoughts on the Medicaid expansion impasse, but for now, I invite your questions, thoughts, and concerns about the work of the General Assembly, and your thoughts on issues we left unresolved.

Mark Obenshain is a member of the Virginia State Senate.



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