Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Mental-health advocates rally at Ohio Statehouse

By Jim Siegel
Gannett Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - Nearly 100 mental health advocates gathered Tuesday on the Statehouse lawn and, with the help of connecting jump ropes, formed a chain around the Statehouse to promote mental-health issues for children.

"We're just hoping we're going to bring some awareness to the issue and open people's eyes," said Julie Holston, a coordinator with the Community Mental Health and Recovery Board serving Licking and Knox counties. "Hopefully our legislature will take notice."

After the Statehouse rally, a few participants, including officials with the Ohio Federation for Children's Mental Health, which organized the event, met with state lawmakers.

Terre Garner, executive director of the federation, said the group is pushing hard for two bills. One requires insurance companies to offer the same health coverage for mental illness as they do for physical ailments. The second, sponsored by Sen. John Carey, R-Wellston, would force counties to pay for treatment of mentally ill children without putting them in government custody.

The lawmakers proposed that change after a two-day Enquirer series revealed that Ohio parents have given up custody of as many as 1,800 children in the past three years so the government would pay to treat their mental illnesses.

Carey spoke at the rally Tuesday and got an ovation for his efforts. He said after several meetings with county officials and other interested parties, a revised version of his bill should be introduced next week.

"It sounds like it should be easy, but it's not," he said.

"Everybody agrees on the goal, but not all agree with how to get there," he said.

Carey also said he is going to act as the Senate's point person on mental-health issues. "The state Senate has made mental health a priority," he told the crowd.

But after exiting the podium, Carey was asked if that meant the Senate would approve the other priority for mental-health advocates - mandating health-insurance coverage for mental illness.

That bill, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Olman, R-Maumee, passed the House in early February and got its first Senate committee hearing Tuesday. But Senate leaders have not shown much interest in moving the measure, which has long been opposed by business and insurance groups who deem it too costly.

Carey called the insurance bill "a separate issue."

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