Editorial: Thomson set the bar high in public life
Published: Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010 - 12:00 am | Page 12A
As new legislators prepare to get down to work, they ought to take a moment to study the too-brief tenure of Helen Thomson.
A psychiatric nurse by profession, Thomson arrived in the state Assembly in 1996, and immediately set out to make an impact on one area – mental health care.
After trying and failing in her first term, Thomson managed to push through legislation in 1999, AB 88, ensuring that mentally ill people would be treated equally in at least one fundamental area.
Thomson's bill required that health insurance companies provide coverage for severe mental illness such schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, just as they provide coverage for cancer, heart attacks and other physical infirmities. Other states had adopted mental health parity laws before California. But once California acted, virtually all other states approved similar laws.
Thomson did not stop there. The following year, she pushed what became known as Laura's Law. Laura Wilcox was home on winter break from Haverford College and working at a Nevada County mental health clinic when she was gunned down by a mentally ill 41-year-old man who long had refused treatment.
Over the objections of some so-called advocates for the rights of mentally ill people, Thomson's bill sought to allow counties to require that severely mentally ill people undergo assisted outpatient treatment, with all appropriate safeguards.
The bill did not go as far as Thomson had hoped. She had wanted to extend it statewide. But to maneuver the bill through the Legislature, she had to engage in the hard art of compromise, agreeing to permit counties to opt into the program or not.
Nevada County opted in. Los Angeles County has begun a pilot program. Other counties have considered adopting such requirements. Perhaps over time it will extend statewide.
None of it came easily. The Church of Scientology aggressively opposed Laura's Law, joining with other groups to demonstrate against Thomson. One group passed out buttons denouncing her as a "danger to others."
Along the way, Thomson ran afoul of Democratic leaders. So it came as little surprise that when new legislative districts were drawn in 2001, Thomson was all but blocked from running for a state Senate seat.
Undaunted, she returned to the Yolo County Board of Supervisors in 2002 and continued to make a difference in the world of mental health care.
She is retiring from elected office in January at age 70.
Thomson didn't rise as high as some other politicians who served in the Assembly between 1996 and 2002. But there are few in the class who left a greater mark on California than Thomson. In the process, she provided a lesson to legislators who come after her.
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