Earl Blumenauer Shares The Worst Vote of His Political Career

Funding for alternative mental health programs has been whittled away since Blumenaer was in the Oregon legislature in the late 1970s

Funding for alternative mental health programs has been whittled away since Blumenaer was in the Oregon legislature in the late 1970s

From The Lund Report, November 3, 2010

Just a few days shy of being re-elected to Oregon’s 3rd district Congressional seat, Earl Blumenauer told a group of 100 community members about the worst vote of his political career.

“There’s a lot of competition for that,” he joked at the third annual breakfast for Folk-Time, Inc., a Portland-based nonprofit that provides community space and social activities for adults living with mental illness.

His decision to support a deinstitutionalization initiative that went before the Oregon legislature in the late 1970s, he said, had disastrous consequences for the very population it was meant to help. “We didn’t wire in the alternative.”

In other words, while it was clear that many institutions were run extremely poorly, and many patients didn’t need to be permanently institutionalized, funding for alternative programs – such as supported housing, medication, therapy and peer-to-peer programs like Folk-Time (which receives no government funding) didn’t match what had been spent on institutions.

“That was the name of the game in the ’70s,” Blumenauer told The Lund Report later, adding that Oregon’s initiative was part of a national movement to get patients out of mental institutions and into the community. Gradually, what funding existed for community mental health programs was whittled away, he said.

“We’re all involved with the difficult challenge of managing mental health, including our own,” Blumenauer said. “All of us who are watching the current election cycle may wonder if there are many of us who are trapped in alternate realities. I say that with respect.” He added — to quiet, nervous laughter from the audience, this tongue-in-cheek example of individuals trapped in alternate realities: reform opponents with signs reading “Keep your hands off my Medicare.”

Blumenauer went on to discuss the new ramifications of the healthcare bill as well as defending its importance – saying Medicare is the biggest long-term threat to fiscal solvency, and is a far worse problem than Social Security.

“If everybody in America practiced medicine the way we do in the Portland metro area, there wouldn’t be a Medicare crisis,” he said, and then asked: “How much are we paying for failure?”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates the economic cost of untreated mental illness at $100 billion annually, said Tom Brady, executive director of Folk-Time.

“The standard response is that there is not money to fund peer to peer services,” Brady said, noting that his own organization doesn’t receive government funding. “My response is that there isn’t money to fund peer to peer services.”