March 5, 2016. The Lakeland Ledger.

LAKELAND — In its annual push for social reforms, the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment will build on earlier accomplishments in the areas of mental health, access to primary health care and a reduction of youth arrests.

These issues will dominate a public forum on Monday at The Lakeland Center as PEACE representatives seek commitments from public officials who are in positions to bring about change.

The meeting, which is open to the public, begins at 6:30 p.m.

A focus of the annual Nehemiah Action Assembly will be to explore ways to create a primary care clinic in Haines City, which suffers a scarcity of affordable health services, said the Rev. June Edwards, an associate pastor at Lakeland’s First United Methodist Church.

Affordable health care has been a priority of PEACE since 2004 when it pushed for a half-cent sales tax for indigent health care. The referendum’s passage produces roughly $30 million a year, serving nearly 47,000 people, according to PEACE.

Money from the tax has funded three clinics: two in Lakeland and one in Winter Haven. PEACE this year is pushing for a fourth clinic to be established in Haines City, where approximately one in three residents have no easy access to affordable health care, said Edwards, who serves on PEACE’s executive committee.

“Those folks have to travel long distances to get access to health care,” she said.

Another priority for 2016 is to expand services for people with severe and persistent mental health illnesses with the addition of a third Florida Assertive Community Treatment team for adults, and a second Community Action Team for children.

Currently Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties share two FACT teams and one CAT team, each comprised of 12 professionals, including psychiatrists and nurses.

The mental health teams are funded by the state and help to reduce emergency treatments at area hospitals. The intensive, all-encompassing team approach also reduces incarceration and homelessness, advocates say.

Bennie Allred, chief operating officer for Peach River Center, a nonprofit that manages one of Polk’s two FACT teams, said a third team is needed, but he and other mental health experts would prefer to see more funds allocated to alleviate a critical shortage of affordable housing for the mentally ill.

That recommendation has yet to resonate with PEACE, he said, and funding remains a challenge no matter the priority.

Allred said Florida budgets $1.2 million annually for each FACT team, with a small percentage of that devoted to housing. “Nothing has changed (for years) in the funding of that,” he said, and there’s no reason to believe any more money will be allocated for FACT.

PEACE tried unsuccessfully last year to motivate county officials to steer some of the indigent health-care tax money to FACT and CAT. The organization, which boasts a membership of some 10,000 people from 19 churches, vows to continue pressing for additional county funding.

“We will need to continue to raise awareness about this problem and put pressure on our officials to save people’s lives today in order to prevent more mental health crisis,” the group said on its website, www.polkpeace.com. “We will develop a more concrete plan to present to our commissioners.”

It remains to be seen just how many county officials and other elected representatives, along with community and business leaders, show up for the Nehemiah assembly.

Edwards of First United Methodist is hopeful of a good showing.

“For the most part, some of these (issues) are pretty big problems or concerns that you just don’t fix in a month or a year,” she said.