Last November, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale released 12 recommendations to curtail gun violence in Pennsylvania.
On Tuesday, the Democrat highlighted his top suggestion inside the trauma bay at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health’s downtown hospital: expanding access to mental health services and reducing the stigma sometimes attached to seeking help.
“The connection between lack of mental health services and firearm deaths in Pennsylvania is a growing problem, and it’s something that needs to be addressed,” DePasquale said.
He is currently embarking on a tour of Pennsylvania health care facilities to understand what they’re dealing with and to see if they’ve hit upon any solutions.
“Beyond the human side of this, which is obviously the most important, there is an enormous cost to the taxpayer,” DePasquale said, adding that 76 percent of gunshot victims are publicly insured or uninsured. That came with a price tag of $1.5 billion over the last decade, according to the report.
Standing alongside the auditor general, Dr. Eric Bradburn, director of the hospital’s trauma program, said the issue is not a political one.
“We see a lot of violence,” Bradburn said. “[Of the] self-inflicted gunshot wounds over the past five years, 44 percent were suicides. So it’s a real big issue.”
As budget season ramps up in May and June, DePasquale said his office will advocate for more mental health funding. He said he will also be “pushing hard” for red flag legislation, which would allow judges at the request of a family member or law enforcement official to temporarily revoke a person’s access to firearms.
Red flag laws in other states have been shown to reduce suicides, which made up two-thirds of the firearms-related deaths in Pennsylvania in 2016.
Beyond increased access to mental health services, as well as a push to destigmatize care, DePasquale’s report recommended primary care physicians be trained “to screen patients for risks of firearm violence.”
Bradburn said Penn Medicine Lancaster General has committed resources to its Behavioral Health Hospital, a separate psychiatric facility, and has implemented a screening tool in the emergency department to screen for at-risk behaviors for suicide.
At its primary care facilities, Penn Medicine Lancaster General offers behavioral health counselors that the community “can access in a way that’s non-stigmatized,” Bradburn said.
“There still is a stigma,” DePasquale added, “… on getting that mental health help that is in some areas more available than others. But even in areas where it is available, there still is a reluctance [for] some people to try to reach out and get that.
“The alternatives to not getting it can be disastrous.”
DePasquale said there needs to be a better connection between people and county health offices.
“It’s going to be a significant chunk of money, no doubt about it,” he said of getting more counselors in hospitals and county health offices. “But compared to the cost of not having it, it would actually save dollars and save lives.”