Friday, April 4, 2014

Sin Tax; Pushing the mentally ill to the front of the bus!

     Several years ago, during a conversation with a State Representative, I expressed my frustration of approaching government leaders as a mental health advocate. I shared how, when it comes to funding treatment programs, they all echo the same theme; in these challenging economic times, all departments are feeling the budgetary pinch. It was then that he gave a candid response; the mentally ill have always been pushed to the back of the bus for funding! Sadly, little doubt remains that his claim was correct.
     That conversation takes on a new meaning as we examine local current events. As baseball immortal Yogi Berra once said “It’s Deja-vu all over again”. Using his words as a roadmap, we observe in utter disbelief as a group of extremely wealthy individuals approach many political leaders, with their hands out, demanding an extension of the reputed Sin Tax. The proceeds are to be earmarked to fund upgrades and maintenance of Cleveland’s sports venues. Unlike those in true need, these multimillionaires get moved expeditiously to the “front of the bus” for assistance, and the politicians will leave no stone unturned in their goal to satisfy their requests.
     As advocates, we approach these leaders with the goal of helping those in need, and strive to convince them of the importance of providing readily available treatment.  Contrast that with the owners of these sports franchises. Their advocacy consists of influential lawyers, lobbyists, and economists who will be armed with some self-serving and convoluted statistics of the benefits of this tax. The catch words, “create good jobs” will be bantered about freely as a major benefit of its passage. What is being ignored is that if the promise of good jobs for every tax break for the wealthy were so, each of us would be supplied with about 6 jobs to keep up with the demand. It is imperative to point out that twenty years ago, these same promises were exploited in the original Sin Tax strategy, and for the most part, those jobs were nothing more than a fabrication.
     The first campaign add in support of this extension, which will produce an estimated 285 million dollars, is now running on local TV. In this, it is proclaimed that this proposal will not raise the price of beer, which implies it is a tax that none will even know they are paying. If that is the case, let us reallocate the proceeds of this extension and move the mentally ill to the front of the bus. In other words, instead of more corporate welfare, spend the money for those most in need of assistance.
     Any discussion in dealing with how to improve the treatment of the severely mentally ill begins with where can a person in crisis be taken for help? In Cuyahoga County, 1500 indigent individuals seek treatment in a county that surprisingly, no longer provides public psychiatric beds for needed care. Not long ago, there was the promise and commitment of building a new 50 bed facility just off Euclid Ave. This clinic would have served all of northeastern Ohio, and would have presented a radical reversal of the government’s constant reduction in public treatment facilities.
     In a devastating move, Governor Kasich and the legislature deemed this facilities price tag, 87 million dollars as outrageous, and once again, placed those in need in the back of the bus. As a result, Cuyahoga County, which is home to the highest number of severely mentally ill individuals in the state, continues to lack the much needed beds. Because there is seriously limited places available to provide essential care, the “treat them and street them” actions often become the only option.  This activity often results in the afflicted ending up in the de-facto mental hospital, the County Jail, where they finally receive some treatment. It is crucial to highlight that incarceration is a significantly higher cost option than providing care in a treatment facility.  
     It is necessary to point out that Governor Kasich is not alone is failing the mentally ill. His predecessor, the self-proclaimed crusader of economic justice, Ted Strickland, did little to advance the efforts of providing assistance to this invisible class of society. In fact, he oversaw some of the most inhumane cuts in the mental health safety net the state of Ohio had ever encountered. So the blame for these failures goes far and wide.
     It is perplexing that the cost of this hospital was deemed prohibitive while the 285
Million dollars of corporate welfare generated by this sin tax is considered a necessity. If the owners claim poverty, one recent incident should cast profound skepticism of that premise. A Detroit Tigers baseball player just signed a contract valued in upwards of 292 million dollars, which is more than the projected proceeds of this sin tax extension. These exorbitant contracts in professional sports have become the norm, and with it, the demand for those who live below the poverty level to continue to subsidize these outrageous profits.
    When investment in a community is discussed, there is one that would take about a quarter of the Sin Tax revenue and be a true answer to the prayers of many. These funds should be utilized to build this mental health treatment facility. With this revenue, this would allow for the opening of the 50 beds for those in dire straits, and begin to restore some lost dignity to a group of people who for many years, have lacked that quality of life. With this, we would see a reduction in homelessness, less addiction, and also we find that the police will receive fewer calls requesting their assistance with an individual in a mental health crisis.
     Another hidden value of this reallocation directly affects many who will pay this tax. They will see a significant return on their investment when their family and loved ones will be provided the service that is needed. Many will witness those afflicted transform from illness to wellness and become productive members of society. With increasing self-worth, many will, one day leave public assistance and become independent. All these positive outcomes the result of moving the mentally ill to the front of the bus.
      Some of this alternately allocated Sin Tax revenue could also find its way into rebuilding schools, bringing staffing of community safety forces up to a proper level, and even filling potholes. Once again, assisting those that need help creates an endless bucket list.  
     It is essential to clarify one aspect of this proposed extension. It is not a sin that people smoke or drink, that is a personal choice. However, it is a sin that many in need of treatment of mental illness struggle to get the essential help. It is a sin that the political leaders have failed to provide adequate funding to support those most vulnerable members of society. Finally, it is a sin that we put the needs of the wealthiest in the form of corporate welfare above those that are in desperate need.
     Over the next several weeks, the Pro Tax forces, armed with deep pockets, will flood the public with promises of utopia if this passes, and some veiled threats of a team moving if it fails. In all likelihood, even with opposition armed with the broken promises of twenty years ago, the politicians will see to it that this passes. However, no matter how it is spun, no matter what promises are made, this is still the poor subsidizing the supremely rich.
     As is becoming the societal norm, the wealthy are situated in “the front of the bus” while the mentally ill are resigned to sit in the rear.  It must not be forgotten, that those deemed mentally ill consist of ordinary people who developed an illness. They have become a group that is simply marginalized, and ignored, and in this case, simply because they cannot score touchdowns or hit home runs. That in itself is a sad commentary on the sense of value we all display.
     If I am correct, and this does eventually pass, the public will witness the owners and the politicians victoriously “spiking the ball in the end zone”. After all, it will be easy for the wealthy to celebrate this victory, especially since they never even look towards the back of the bus