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

November 4, 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.”

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It is certainly correct that dollars for community programs did not follow. However, this state (as well as others) continues to fund the expensive hospital programs - whether they are quality or not -- all the while fending off federal regulators and spending more $ on "planning" and "consensus building" and other such activities.

Mr. Blumenauer, when the federal government takes money out of everyone's paycheck with the explicit promise that they will get it back in medical care when they retire, it makes perfect sense for them to think of it as "my Medicare". It was their money that was taken, without their consent or choice, in the first place. It is not the government's money -- although the bureaucrats and their supporters in Congress have claimed to be managing, investing and spending it "for the greater good" for so long that you've come to think that they money, and what it buys, is basically yours. When more people are allowed to put money in their own tax-free health accounts, opt out of these mismanaged and unsustainable programs, those who want to stay in them are provided supplemental funding by cutting overseas military spending, and we slowly start to wind down the 45-year-long mess of government managed health care, will you be the one with the sign that says "Keep your hands off my Medicare"? Washington DC is the truly alternate reality. -Cliff Hutchison, Republican PCP from Multnomah County