The vital need for healthcare dominated this year’s State of the County address with Board of Supervisors President Joe Simitian stressing the need for quality mental health and homelessness services.
His address called for creating a better system where the many facets of healthcare — lack of insurance coverage, homelessness, mental illness and texting while driving — all pose enormous risks to the health of Santa Clara residents.
“In a perfect world, our healthcare system would reflect and respect the fact that access to quality healthcare is the necessary precondition to happy, healthy, and fulfilling lives,” Simitian said. “Here in Santa Clara County, we are already on our way to creating a healthcare system that is healthy, is caring, and is an honest-to-god system that delivers to each of us as individual patients, and all of us as a county.”
Simitian stressed the need for covering all Santa Clara residents and focused on access to primary care services for those without health insurance. The goal is to cover everyone, he said, and while Santa Clara is 93.5 percent covered, that’s not “good enough” for Simitian.
The board president said that means ensuring the county’s most vulnerable residents — those who live on the streets — can also see a doctor and get housed.
“Homelessness is unhealthy,” said Simitian, followed by an applause. “When it comes to housing we know we need to provide an array of services” that include prevention programs, emergency care and shelters, long term care and outreach. According to Simitian, combating homelessness is “all part of the larger healthcare” system.
Ray Bramson, chief impact officer of Destination: Home, agreed with Simitian’s approach to frame homelessness as a public health concern. He said that’s the best way to get people housed and treated for mental illness.
“Once people are housed, it’s easier to provide support. We saw an 83 percent reduction in crisis services after people were housed,” said Bramson. “For a long time we’ve thought of housing as a medicine—as a cure. So we absolutely agree. We’re saving lives by getting people inside.”
Mental health services a top priority
Combating the stigma of mental illness and providing critical programs to treat behavioral health are also at the forefront of this year’s agenda.
“Mental health care is healthcare,” Simitian told the crowd on Tuesday. “Let’s stop criminalizing mental illness.”
He stressed the importance of providing better alternatives for youth who experience mental illness through crisis support programs and a hotline to get help.
“I loved his speech,” said Kathy Forward, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “That’s exactly what we want to hear from a politician.”
Forward said it’s critical for Santa Clara County to employ peer mentors for individuals with mental illnesses to share in “lived experience.”
“I consider stigma to be ignorance and fear,” Forward added. “Stigma, like when the AIDS epidemic broke out — it took movie stars getting together to raise a lot of money and educating people on what it was and what it wasn’t. Once we educate people about something, then we’re not so fearful about it.”
Texting and driving
Simitian also spoke at length about distracted driving as a public health issue.
The state saw a 20 percent decrease in injuries and fatalities in the first year since California implemented the hands-free law, according to Simitian.
“We need a concerted effort to reduce the lives lost and injuries suffered as a result of distracted driving on our streets and highways,” Simitian said. “Every single day a couple of people went home and sat down with their families that otherwise wouldn’t have made it. We know with a concerted effort we can reduce the number of lives lost.”
“The state of our county is healthy, and gets healthier every day,” Simitian added. “We will make 2019 the year of a healthier Santa Clara County.”
Reporter Kyle Martin contributed to this report.
Contact Nadia Lopez at [email protected] or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.