New California Senate Health Presidency to Prioritize Mental Health and Homelessness

California State Senator Susan Talamantes Eggman, a Democrat from Stockton who was instrumental in passing mental health legislation Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law last year, has been named to lead the influential Senate Health Committee, a change that promises more urgent attention to expanding mental health services and relocating the homeless to housing and treatment.

Eggman, a licensed social worker, co-authored the new law that allows families, doctors, first responders and others to petition a judge to mandate government-funded treatment and services for people whose lives have been derailed from untreated psychotic disorders and substance use. It was a victory for Newsom, who proposed the Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment Act, or CARE Court, as a powerful new tool to address the tens of thousands of people in California who are homeless or at risk of incarceration due to disease untreated mental health and addiction. The measure has met stiff opposition from civil liberties and disability groups concerned about depriving people of the right to make decisions for themselves.

“We see real-world examples of people dying every single day, and they’re dying with their rights,” Eggman said in an interview with KHN ahead of the nomination. “I think we need to take a small step back and look at the larger public health issue. It is a danger for everyone to live around the needles or have people hiding under the highways.

Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins announced Eggman’s nomination Thursday night. Eggman replaces Dr. Richard Pan, who was fired last year after serving as president for five years. Pan, a pediatrician, had prioritized the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and supported legislation tightening state childhood vaccination laws. Those moves made him a hero among public health advocates, even as he faced name-calling and physical threats from opponents.

The leadership change is expected to coincide with a Democratic health care agenda focused on two of the state’s thorniest and most intractable issues: homelessness and mental illness. According to federal data, California accounts for 30% of the nation’s homeless population, while making up 12% of the US population. A recent Stanford study estimated that in 2020, approximately 25% of homeless adults in Los Angeles County had a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, and 27% had long-term substance use disorder.

Eggman will work with Assemblyman Jim Wood, a Democrat from Santa Rosa who is returning as chairman of the Assembly Health Committee. While presidents may set different priorities, they must work together to get the bills to the governor’s desk.

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