Put People First!
On April 7, more than 500 community mental health workers and long-term caregivers, members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW and 775NW, rallied at the state capitol in Olympia, WA. The healthcare workers urged legislators to protect essential mental health, disability care and low-income housing programs by closing tax loopholes benefiting banks and wealthy corporations.
After protesting outside a Chase Bank branch, union members occupied the State Capitol rotunda for several hours; sixteen members of local 775NW staged a nonviolent sit-in outside Governor Gregoire’s office and were arrested by Capitol police. By the end of the day, the Governor agreed to meet with a delegation of healthcare workers, who delivered the same message: balancing the state budget solely by cutting social and human services is immoral. Before cutting services, we must close tax loopholes benefiting Wall Street banks and other wealthy interests.
The action at the state capitol is part of a broad effort to protect vital human services in Washington. Proposed budget cuts would leave 27,000 Washington kids without healthcare and tens of thousands of people with mental illness are losing housing and services. Meanwhile, legislators are giving away millions in tax breaks to corporate chicken farms for warm chicken bedding, $5 million a year to private jet owners, and $100 million a year to Wall Street Banks.
In March, 1199NW President Diane Sosne, RN, MN, brought the twisted priorities of the state to life with an Op-Ed published in the Olympian when she described the differences between Bill and a chicken. Bill suffers from mental illness and chemical dependency, but thanks to a vital program Disability Lifeline, he has been able to get on his feet. Unfortunately, as Diane writes, Bill’s needs are not as important as a chicken:
…last fall the state cut monthly Disability Lifeline payments from $339 to $258. Bill could no longer afford to rent his apartment, and began sleeping on the street. Without the support he needed, he relapsed, found himself in jail, then ended up in an intensive inpatient treatment facility.
Now about those chickens: Ten years ago, the state Legislature passed a special tax break to benefit a few dozen factory farms that raise chickens. There’s a tax break on bedding – wood shavings, sawdust, straw, shredded paper – and another tax break for natural gas to heat the barns so the birds can stay warm. All told, these tax breaks cost Washington $4.5 million over the last four years. With the state facing a $5 billion deficit, it’s time for the corporate chicken farms to pay their fair share.
We’ve got our work cut out for us in state houses like Washington across the US. SEIU members are standing with people with disabilities and mental health needs to protect human services, not tax breaks for corporations and millionaires. Sign-up here to stay up to date on our in WA and across the US.
It’s well known that the vast majority of people living with mental illness are peaceful, functioning members of their community, posing no risk to themselves or others. This is because treatment works, when dedicated mental healthcare professionals are available to provide it.
But some state’s systems are falling short — reaching barely half of low-income residents in need of state-funded mental health services. When this frayed safety net fails, some people will lose control—with tragic results that wreck lives and destroy everyone’s sense of safety in the community.
This month, members of SEIU Healthcare 1199NW gathered at the State Capitol in Olympia to release a powerful new look at the crisis facing mental healthcare in Washington state. The report is entitled Don’t Look Away: With a collapsing mental health safety net, Washington is losing the fight against preventable tragedies (pdf).
In WA, cuts to mental health programs would leave mental health patients to receive care in emergency rooms, jails, and hospitals instead of community settings. Providing mental healthcare in the community costs $2,162 a year, while similar care in a prison costs $31,000 or $182,000 in a state hospital.
What’s the biggest mental health treatment facility in your community?
Chances are pretty good it’s your local jail.
In a familiar cycle, people with untreated mental illness end up on the street and get sideways with the law. They get arrested for a non-violent misdemeanor – creating a public disturbance or some other petty charge – and wind up in jail. It’s the worst place to be for a person struggling with mental illness.
Here in Martin Luther King County, Washington (where Seattle is), on any given day in local jails 15% of inmates have a serious mental illness and 80% have drug or alcohol problems.
For many years, mental health and chemical dependency treatment professionals in Washington state have watched with frustration as their clients disappeared into the jail system. There they suffer more than the typical inmate, and have a harder time getting out. King County Councilmember Bob Ferguson has pointed out that an individual booked into county jail stays for an average of 20 days; someone with mental illness booked on an identical charge will spend an average of 158 days in jail, often waiting for a competency evaluation that may take months. Not only is there a social and human cost; at $300 a day to house and feed an inmate in a psychiatric unit, taxpayers end up paying millions for inappropriate, ineffective care.
Through their union, SEIU Healthcare 1199NW, community mental health and chemical dependency treatment professionals are joining up with allies to change this. Uniting with a range of advocates – human service agencies, NAMI, police, judges, prosecutors and first responders – union members in King County and elsewhere in Washington state have worked to get local governments to establish crisis diversion facilities. When police arrest people who exhibit symptoms of mental illness or chemical dependency, they can take them to the crisis diversion facility as an alternative to jail. Instead of a cot behind bars and an environment of abuse, these people can get professional services treatment and referral to services based on their particular needs.
In order to fund crisis diversion facilities, counties throughout Washington state have enacted local sales tax measures specifically intended to fund innovative mental health and chemical dependency treatment programs.
In King County, union members worked alongside allies to secure passage of the measure by a bipartisan majority of the King County Council. The following year, the County Council also established a stakeholders’ committee to advise the Council on what projects to fund with the new revenues. SEIU Healthcare 1199NW members have played an active role on this committee. In partnership with unionized providers, such as Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC), union members have advocated for the establishment of a crisis diversion facility. The advisory committee ranked the creation of a crisis diversion facility at the top of its priority list, which the County Council adopted.
Earlier this year, the County put the crisis diversion facility project out to bid. Among several bidders, DESC was successful and is in the process of setting up the facility. The result will be more jobs – with union rights and wages. And it will create a much more sensible and humane path for hundreds of clients in King County every year.
Union members hope that as the crisis diversion facility and other innovative programs get launched, they will see the day when their clinic, and not the jail, is the place where their clients can be found.