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Blunt calls for more federal spending on mental health services, even as spending cuts loom

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 15, 2013 - U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., says he expects the federal spending cuts mandated by “sequestration” – a last-ditch budget deal agreed to in 2011 --  to go into effect in March, since Congress and the White House haven’t agreed on an alternative.

But Blunt indicated that the cuts might not curtail new spending that he considers worthy, notably more money for mental health services.

He has maintained for weeks, in Missouri and in Washington, that heightened government attention and spending on mental health might be the best way to address mass killings, including the recent tragedies in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., where the assailants appeared to be mentally ill.

“The time is right to look at this,” Blunt said. “People understand that it is a component in some of the tragedies that we’ve dealt with in the last few years: the behaviorial consequences that lead to really tragic consequences.”

And the “right model,’’ he continued, might well be to add mental health services as a component of the existing federally qualified health centers.

On Friday, Blunt stopped by the Betty Jean Kerr People’s Health Center, 5701 Delmar Blvd. in St. Louis, to view its effort to integrate mental health treatment with physical care.

Dwayne Butler, president and chief executive of People's Health Centers, which primarily serves low-income people, said that reaching those with mental health issues is best done at the same facility – preferably in the same room and at the same time that they are receiving physical medical treatment.

The success rate is much greater, he said, and it also is much more efficient.

Blunt said that it’s estimated that it would take only $100 million a year in additional federal money, nationwide, to provide mental health services at exisiting federally qualified health centers.

“Our state happens to have been a leader in it,” Blunt said. “But this is the time I think we have a good chance to really get attention to how to bring these two services together.”

He contended that Congress is most likely to address mental health issues as a response to the public pressure for action, in response to the mass shootings.

Blunt added that there’s “an argument for adding mental health information to  background checks” for gun purchases. “You’re much more likely to catch that problem in a background check than you are to catch a criminal problem.”

However, Blunt did not commit to any expansion of background checks, even to gun shows, where purchasers don’t have to undergo a background check if they purchase a firearm for someone who’s not a commercial gun dealer.

As for sequestration, Blunt said he was convinced that “the spending cuts are going to happen,” but added that he was willing to grant President Barack Obama’s administration the flexibility “to target their cuts," especially regarding the military.

(Blunt added that he didn’t believe Congress would agree to address sequestration with more revenue, although Senate Democrats have come up this week with a sequestration proposal that does include additional revenue along with spending cuts.)

Blunt praised the new Senate Appropriations chairman – Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland – who he said appeared committed to sending spending bills to the floor for general Senate debate.

“If we do those things, that’s where you have the right kind of prioritization on where you’re going to spend the people’s money,” Blunt said. And in his opinion, such spending should include more mental health services.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.