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Legislature Approves Mental Health Advocate Bill

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The Redesign Work Group that addressed issues involving the courts and public safety recommended what many thought was a small change - make the state's Mental Health Advocates employees of the Department of Inspections and Appeals.  Mental health advocates are currently hired and evaluated by the Judicial Branch, but their salaries are paid for with county tax dollars. Counties pay for the position, but have no say in who is hired or how they are doing.  

The work group felt it was very important for these advocates (who help Iowans that are going through the involutnary commitment process) to be independent, and that both the courts and counties have an interest in the decisions made.  To be truly conflict-free, the work group felt that mental health advocates needed to be a part of an independent state agency, like the Department of Inspections and Appeals.  

This bill became a magnet for all things controversial.  Legislators debated over which state agency was the most appropriate. They debated whether this was "expanding government" by increasing the number of state employees.  Others wanted to open up scope of practice issues, adding to the list of health care professionals that could evaluate individuals being involuntarily committed.  The bill started to buckle under the weight of this controversy, and many thought it was dead.

Just one week before the session ended, Rep. Dave Heaton of Mount Pleasant was able to negotiate a final deal that made the 60-plus advocates employees of the Department of Inspections and Appeals.  The bill ultimately passed 80-8 in the House, and unanimously (49-0) in the Senate.  The bill (Senate File 406) has not yet been signed by the Governor, but there is a $250,000 appropriation in the Health/Human Services Budget (Senate File 446) to create a Mental Health Advocate Division in the Department of Inspections and Appeals.