TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — A bill aiming to change how Florida handles the care of mental illness and substance use disorders has been sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis to sign into law. The bill would make changes to who can help someone in recovery, and adds mental health disorders to what can be treated by state-certified counselors.

Senate Bill 282, which focuses on mental health and substance use disorder treatment, passed both chambers of the Florida Legislature unanimously. Should DeSantis sign the bill into law, peer specialists, who work with individuals treated for substance use disorders, mental health illnesses, or a combination of “co-occurring disorders” for up to 180 days would be subject to background screenings, under law.

The bill also provides more opportunities to expand care for those in need of recovery.

It allows “the use of peer specialists to assist in the individual’s recovery from a substance use disorder or mental illness” and provides options for support for employment, education, or skills development, including helping those recovering find housing, support their families, and manage their wellness and self-care.

All individuals screened after July 1, 2022, for employment to provide these counseling and care services would have to submit to background checks. Employees in inmate substance abuse programs operated directly by or through a contract with the Florida Department of Corrections are exempt from these checks, according to the bill.

The impetus behind SB 282 comes from Florida finding an increased level of sometimes fatal opioid addictions. State lawmakers said, in the bill text, that “the ability to provide adequate behavioral health services is limited by a shortage” of workers.

To address this need, peer specialists who can provide these services effectively, “because they share common life experiences with the persons they assist” and can “promote a sense of community among those in recovery” are now able to qualify to work with those in recovery, even if they may have criminal histories, if the bill passes.

SB 282 said that state research shows peer support facilities help individuals recover and reduce health care costs. To use these specialists as a way to save on service costs, the Legislature will have the Florida Department of Children and Families manage entities who can conduct peer specialist training, or contract with providers for it.

Additionally, the DCF will be charged with approving third-party credentialing services to approve training programs, certify peer specialists, approve continuing education programs and establish minimum requirements and standards to maintain certifications. The department will also ensure background screening is performed, and that third-party credentialing services are not the ones performing those checks.

To be certified as a peer specialist, individuals must submit full sets of fingerprints to either DCF or a vendor or agency that works with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, as well as pay any associated fees for a background screening and fingerprint process. FDLE will have to send fingerprint sets to the Federal Bureau of Investigation for national processing.

Applicants must also provide full first names, middle initials, last names, social security numbers or individual taxpayer-identification numbers, their dates of birth, mailing addresses, sex and race. Peer specialists will not be certified if they have been arrested for any felony, or await final disposition of a felony, in the previous three years.

This includes entering a plea of nolo contendere, being found guilty, or having been adjudicated delinquent, with the record not sealed or expunged for a felony.

Additionally, anyone who is found to have been convicted guilty of sexual misconduct with developmentally disabled clients, sexual misconduct with mental health patients, have committed felony first or second degree Medicaid provider fraud, abuse, neglect or exploitation of vulnerable adults, or any offense that is considered domestic abuse, may not be certified as a peer specialist.

Any peer specialist applicants who have attempted to, have or committed conspiracy to solicit an offense related to murder, manslaughter, aggravated manslaughter of an elderly person or disabled adult, aggravated manslaughter of a child, or aggravated manslaughter of a law enforcement officer, firefighter, emergency medical technician or paramedic is also unable to be certified.

Those who have been charged in relation to vehicular homicide, killing an unborn child by injury to the mother, assaulted, battered, or committed culpable negligence as felonies, kidnapping, falsely imprisoning, or luring or enticing a child is unable to be certified. If the applicant has faced charges related to leading, taking, enticing or removing a minor outside of the state or concealing a minor’s location, with criminal intent pending custody proceedings, they would also be prevented from receiving certification.

A variety of other charges involving weaponry near schools, abuse, lewd or lascivious offenses, and other abuses of the elderly or disabled, as well as children, charges of incest, sexual assault, or child neglect would bar applicants from certification as a peer specialist. A full list can be found in the text of SB 282.

If DeSantis signs the bill into law, it would take effect on July 1.