Gov. LePage blames mental illness for mass shootings while denying access to care
On Monday, in response to the tragic mass shooting at Umpqua community college in Oregon that left 10 people dead, Governor LePage distributed a press release calling on lawmakers to tackle what he believes is the “real issue” behind mass shootings: individuals with untreated mental illness.
“We blame guns when our nation’s problem with violence is really about people with mental disease getting access to firearms,” wrote LePage. This is at least the second time that LePage has made this argument. In 2013, after the shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, LePage sent a letter to the President and Maine’s congressional delegation encouraging debate “on the real issue” of mental health services instead of common-sense gun safety measures. “We must be willing to focus on the accessibility and delivery of mental health care services,” wrote LePage.
Shifting the focus of acts of violence away from access to firearms to questions about mental health has become a common rhetorical tactic for conservative politicians who want to skirt the issue of gun violence. The reality is that individuals with mental illness are more likely to be a danger to themselves than to others and on the whole, about 3-5% of violent acts in America can be attributed to the mentally ill.
What’s worse than Governor LePage choosing to scapegoat the mentally ill to avoid addressing the issue of gun safety, is that he has steadfastly refused to do the one thing that could directly help thousands of Mainers struggling with access to mental health services: accepting the millions of federal dollars to provide health care to more than 70,000 Mainers as part of Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), states are entitled to federal funding to expand their medicaid program for people who are caught in a coverage “gap” where they make too much to qualify for current medicaid programs, but likely can’t afford the premiums on insurance plans offered through the ACA. Governor LePage has vetoed multiple attempts to accept the federal dollars for MaineCare, the state’s medicaid program, despite attempts by moderate Republicans to broker several compromises.
Denying access to health care through medicaid expansion has serious ramifications for many vulnerable populations. As Harold Pollack, a professor at the University of Chicago, recently wrote in the Washington Post medicaid expansion “was always the public health cornerstone of ACA. It remains the single most important measure to expand access to mental health and addiction treatment, serving severely vulnerable populations such as the homeless, addressing the complicated medical and psychiatric difficulties of many young men cycling through our jails and prisons.”
The National Association of Mental Health (NAMI) made this point clear in 2013 when they released a report endorsing Medicaid expansion, writing that “states that decline to expand Medicaid will miss as good an opportunity as they may ever have to address this shameful void in access to mental health treatment.” In Maine, they estimated that almost a quarter of the people who would be eligible for expanded access to health care were in need of some mental health support.
It’s not just mental health services either. Medicaid expansion also provides funding for individuals seeking treatment for drug addiction. In Maine, where LePage actually cut people from MaineCare, many in treatment or seeking treatment found themselves left in a lurch. In July, a heartbreaking obituary for Coleen Singer, who died from a heroin overdose, went viral for calling out Governor LePage’s policies, including denying access to Medicaid, as a key roadblock for Coleen getting the help she needed. “She was a victim of herself, of LePage’s politics, of our society’s continuing ignorance and indifference to mental illness, and of our society’s asinine approach to drug addiction,” read the obituary, which was written by her ex-husband.
“When mental illness is understood and a plan is established, we have an opportunity to prevent the other serious issues resulting from this disease, such as joblessness, homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration and loss of life,” said Governor LePage.
He’s right. If only he could choose to act on his words.
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