Legislative Update: Indian Language Preservation Programs, Transporting the Mentally Ill, and More

The Montana State Capitol Building

The Montana State Capitol Building

HB 255 would provide for the transportation of individuals who may be suffering from mental illness to the state hospital for involuntary commitment or treatment. The bill would allocate funds for transportation and require the department of public health of human services to adopt rules surrounding transport. The bill was introduced to the House Human Services committee on February 5th by Representative Jacob Bachmeier, a Democrat from House district 28, which includes Havre.

Currently, individuals are transported to the state hospital for involuntary commitment or treatment, by county law enforcement officials and are often restrained by shackles or handcuffs. Representative Bachmeier stated that potential trauma suffered by transportees as well as the burden on county law enforcement to provide transport calls for changes in the current system. Representative Bachmeier stated he believes this bill could be altered or rewritten as a study regarding alternatives to current transport options.

“Currently, in the State of Montana, when someone is adjudicated to be mentally ill and they have to be transported to the state hospital, the county sheriff is responsible for transporting them. I really appreciate the work of our county sheriffs, but if you have a conversation with many of our county sheriffs, they’ll tell you upfront that they’re not the right people for the job of transporting these individuals. Imagine being in one of the most rural eastern counties in Montana and you have just a few people on your staff and all of a sudden two officers have to transport someone to the state hospital. I mean, that’s a two or three day trip. The county eats the cost of the transportation. If the county sheriff transports a person with mental illness, they’re not a medical entity; they can’t be reimbursed for that cost by insurance. So I don’t know if we could do this with the bill title, but potentially trying to do a study on the topic or over the interim even if there wasn’t a study bill, asking folks and stakeholders to come in and talk about the issue and figure out how we could best help these people with mental illness be transported in a safe and dignified manner.”

The bill received support from Beth Brenneman, of Disability Rights Montana who cited limitation on the use of restraints as a needed reform with regard to transportation of individuals to the State Hospital

“The issue of transport to the Montana state hospital has been one for advocates for a long time. The use of restraints, which are pretty common and in fact, I believe, required by policy, is really unfortunate. We love the part of this bill that requires a limitation of the use of restraints and also the reporting of the state of the use of restraints. We want to know what’s happening out there and we want to know how the transport is occurring, and especially we want to know how they’re limiting the use of restraints since the use of restraints unfortunately can escalate a situation that otherwise might not be as escalated.”

Zoe Barnard, Administrator for the Department of Health and Human Services Addictive and Mental Disorders Division, acted as an informational witness and provided information regarding the history of the bill.

“In 2009, this same bill passed with an automatic sunset in 2011. The majority of the people that come to the Montana state hospital are civil commitments. In fiscal year 2018, there were about 800 admissions, and over 700 of them were civil commitments. It is probably worth me mentioning that 49 out of 50 states use a law enforcement officer to transport civil commitments to the state psychiatric hospital. The final thing, just to make the committee aware of is that judges are the persons who make the orders in this case and most of the time, judges prefer that law enforcement officers carry out their orders.”

House bill 255 was tabled in committee on February 8th.

House Bill 371 would provide for ongoing funding of Indian language preservation programs and create the Indian language preservation state special revenue account. The Bill was introduced to the House Education Committee on February 11th, by Jonathan Windy Boy, a Democrat from House District 32, which is located south of highway 2 between Box Elder and Hinsdale, Montana. Representative Windy Boy reminded the committee that funding has been made available during each session for language preservation, but this bill would create a special revenue account that would fund the program in perpetuity.

“It’s very important you know, for the tribes in this state, on the rapid loss of the language of the indigenous peoples in the State of Montana, and giving an example of what that rate is going: with my tribe alone, as I mentioned before, there are 7000 members, with 4000 residents on the Rocky Boy Reservation. And out of that 4000 in 2013 when this first came about, we had 165 fluent Cree speakers and 1 Ojibwe speaker left in our tribe. And then, as of last summer, we have shrunk. Within that period, it’s down to under 100 fluent Cree speakers and down to one Ojibwe speaker who is 85 years old now. It seems like father time, the more we progress, time catches up to us, and so it is the cycle of life. Even though that, from 2013-2015, the governor put in his base budget $1.5 million, and then from there in the last session in 2017, it dropped even farther, to $1 million. And because this particular source of revenue, source of money, that goes into this program has always been a one-time-only (OTO), that every session we come back and hopefully we’ll get it funded. So far, we’ve been pretty fortunate that this would happen. What this bill is going to do is to set up that special revenue account, and once that special revenue account gets established, then there’ll be that $2 million available every two years so that we won’t have to come back here and OTO this every time.”

Jordan Thompson, representing the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation, added his support for the bill and cited benefits to Native Communities of language immersion and preservation.

“Language is like seeing black and white in IMAX. You can be Indian without language, but it’s like watching black and white TV. With language, it’s like watching IMAX. And so the benefits we’ve seen in our community on the Flathead Reservation has just been enormous. For example, I’m on the Nkwusm language immersion school board, and those kids, we have kids from preschool to 8th grade, and they just flourish; they thrive when they know who they are and know their language. When I see them graduate in 8th grade and go on into high school, I don’t know if we have any hard evidence that shows this, but just from what I’ve seen, they’ve done really well going on into high school and beyond. And so I know we’re talking about money here today, and so when you look at how the long term consequences of language affects our youth, I’d say we’re doing better off in education and we’re doing better off just being healthy kids who are going to be healthy community members. That’s going to be good for our community. And so when you look at our community and the money that comes into our community through the Montana Indian Language Program, that helps our immersion schools, our adults, and it helps our communities be a better community and be a healthier community. And so I think the money is very well spent. These are the original languages of Montana, and so I can’t think of a better way to help preserve Montana’s history and heritage than by supporting these native languages. Representative Windy Boy’s bill does that, and so with that, I ask you to support HB 371.”

The bill awaits a vote in the House Education Committee.

House Bill 425 would revise and make permanent Medicaid expansion by removing the termination date of June 30th, for the Montana Health and Economic Livelihood Partnership Act. The bill would provide statutory appropriations for the cost of providing healthcare and provide an appropriation for the Montana Help Act Workforce Development Program. The bill was introduced by Democrat Mary Caferro of House District 81, which includes parts of Helena. The bill was referred to the House Human Services committee on February 7th and a committee hearing on the bill is scheduled for March 16th.

House Bill 425 is the first bill related to Medicaid expansion to be introduced in the Montana legislature in 2019. Since the legislature voted to expand Medicaid in 2015, the federal government has paid for 100% of Montana’s Medicaid expansion. If Medicaid expansion continues, the state of Montana is expected to pay for 10% of the costs of Medicaid expansion with the federal government covering the other 90%. Republican Representative Ed Buttrey of House District 21, which covers parts of Great Falls, is expected to introduce a competing bill regarding Medicaid expansion which may include work requirements.

House Bill 219 would revise legal holidays in Montana by establishing Indigenous People’s Day on the 4th Wednesday in November, and eliminating Columbus Day on the second Monday in October. The bill was introduced to the House State Administration Committee on January 31st by Shane Morigeau, a Democrat from House District 95, which covers parts of Missoula. On February 14, the bill passed the House with a vote of 62 to 35 and was transmitted to the Senate where it awaits committee hearing and vote.