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Guest Opinion

State can’t fix today’s mental health crisis at yesterday’s prices


Due to the number of returning World War II veterans impacted by mental health issues, in 1949 Congress designated May as Mental Health Awareness Month. Today our system is underfunded and collapsing under the weight of increased need.

In Pennsylvania alone, the number of individuals living with mental illness is staggering:

• 1.8M adults have a mental health condition (one in five adults each year) and more than half did not receive any treatment.

• 1.7M people in Pennsylvania live in a community that does not have enough mental health professionals.

Pennsylvanians are over five times more likely to be forced out-of-network for mental health care than for primary health care — making it more difficult to find care and less affordable due to higher out-of-pocket costs.

When individuals or their family members seek Crisis Intervention Services, it is the County MH Base Funding which covers that cost, regardless of an individual’s insurance status.

Now, for over a decade, without any increase in funding from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have been fiercely struggling to provide crucial mental health services to our most vulnerable population. At a time of documented increased demand, our own Bucks County is experiencing a whopping 41% funding gap through reduced purchasing power.

Our service providers are asked to continue the same level of service to our individuals but at a 14-year-old funding level.

To further compound this funding deficit, $100M in federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, handed down to PA in 2022 as a lifeline to manage the crisis of the pandemic, are sitting unused as they still have not been appropriated by the legislature.

These funds are a one-time investment set aside to address mental health. The Behavioral Health Commission for Adult Mental Health was formed to determine how best to use these funds. Following careful analysis, the commission’s recommendations were sent to our lawmakers for distribution:

• Stabilize, strengthen, and expand the workforce: $37M

• Improve the criminal justice and public safety systems: $23.5M

• Expand capacity for services and supports: $39M

But alas, the $100M desperately needed by our communities sits on the shelf, unused, collecting dust.

These one-time federal dollars would be extremely helpful now, but our mental health systems cannot continue to function effectively without a steady, predictable annualized funding stream with added protection against inflation.

Gov. Shapiro has proposed a $20M increase in mental health base funding for next year, but even as a first step, this is insufficient as our actual need is over $1B. The County Commissioner Association of PA (CCAP) is proposing a compromise which increases this $20M to $50M, and re-allocates $100M proposed for schools to go to counties for youth mental health services.

In Bucks County, our mental health programs not only help individuals seamlessly assimilate into our communities, but they also prevent costly inpatient services and reduce police interaction and incarceration.

While not speaking for the Bucks County Board of Behavioral Health and Developmental Programs, as a sitting member of this board I see the wonderful programs and services Bucks County provides:

• Crisis Services

• Crisis Housing

• Suicide education, awareness, prevention and training programs

• MH prevention, education, and early intervention efforts — averting potential hospitalization or incarceration (forensic diversion).

• MH Residential Housing: moving individuals from state hospital beds to supported housing

Because of more than a decade of inadequate funding, our programs are closing or experiencing reduced capacity. Leases are terminated, staff is leaving for better paying jobs, housing is expensive and unattainable.

Let’s change this.

Rhetoric and finger-pointing will not address the expanding mental health needs of our communities, but adequate funding will.

I am urging Gov. Shapiro and our Legislature to commit to a long-term plan of investment to pull PA’s Mental Health System from the point of collapse to a system that fully meets the needs:

1. Increase the proposed $20M increase for mental health base funding to $50M for base funding and re-allocate the $100 million proposed for schools to counties where the needs of our youth can be better served.

2. It is imperative that these increases be annualized, and with the added protection against inflation with a built-in cost of living increase. After more than a decade of inadequate and static funding, additional investments are now needed to fully support the community’s mental health system.

3. Release the $100M one-time 2022 ARPA funds according to the commission’s recommendations.

We can work together to serve our community by giving these individuals a chance to live meaningful lives, and offering their families, friends, and neighbors hope.

I am reaching our legislators urging them to dedicate the necessary funds to address the crushing needs of our mental health population. I encourage each of you to contact your own legislators to make your voice heard.

Ada Miller lives in West Rockhill Township.

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