December 9, 2009 — The University of Virginia School of Law has received a grant to study recent changes to state mental health law. The changes were recommended by a commission formed in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech tragedy.
The $100,000 grant, announced Monday by the Public Health Law Research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, will enable study of changes to Virginia's Health Care Decisions Act.
Law professor Richard Bonnie, who chairs the state Commission on Mental Health Law Reform that recommended the changes, will conduct the study with Dr. Christine Wilder, a psychiatrist at Duke University School of Medicine and the Durham (N.C.) Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
"The study will help us measure the effects of our efforts and to strengthen them as we move forward," Bonnie said. "We believe that empowering people with serious mental illness to exercise more control over their care can pay large dividends in reducing the need for crisis care, coercion and costly legal interventions. That is the central goal of mental health law reform."
The state health law changes allow for patients to authorize advance directives to guide all aspects of their health care – not only end-of-life care – in the event their ability to make decisions becomes impaired.
The Law School study aims to identify key barriers and other factors affecting whether the changes to the act have the intended effects of improving health outcomes and reducing the occurrence of mental health emergencies and the costs of responding to them.
Researchers will survey key stakeholders and health care providers on the implementation of the new provisions and will work with a community service board to train its staff to assist clients in executing advance directives.
The findings will be used to improve the implementation and positive impact of the Health Care Decisions Act, and will be disseminated nationally, according to the Public Health Law Research program.
"This project will provide the evidence needed to ensure that changes in the Health Care Decisions Act will be as effective as possible," said Scott Burris, a law professor and director of the Temple University Center for Health, Law, Policy and Practice, where Public Health Law Research is based. "The findings will also be useful to policymakers and mental health advocates in other states who are contemplating the use of similar advance directive laws to help meet the public health challenge of reducing the huge social costs of untreated severe mental illness in their communities."