As lawmakers break for elections, $100M for mental health care remains out of reach

‘This was not made a priority when it should have been, without question,’ said state Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery

By: - October 28, 2022 7:17 am
Direct service providers rally for more money in the 2022-23 state budget at the Pennsylvania state Capitol on May 24, 2022 in Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg, for the Capital-Star).

Direct service providers rally for more money in the 2022-23 state budget at the Pennsylvania state Capitol on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).

(* This article was updated at 10:25 a.m. Friday, 10/28/2022, to include a statement from Gov. Tom Wolf)

The decision to include $100 million in mental health funding in this year’s state budget was a sign of help on the horizon for Pennsylvania counties and their mental health service providers. 

But those agencies, struggling to meet the demand for mental health care in the wake of the pandemic and the ongoing opioid crisis, will need to wait at least a few more months before they see any of the money.

The General Assembly left town on Wednesday for an Election Day break without passing a spending plan for the money, which was from the commonwealth’s share of American Rescue Plan funding included in the $45.2 billion budget.

Lawmakers involved in the process of developing recommendations for how to spend the money say they’re disappointed their colleagues didn’t reach a consensus on how to distribute it.

“In my estimation, it was because this was not made a priority when it should have been, without question,” said state Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery.

Gov. Tom Wolf also expressed disappointment that the money would not be available to address “a critical and ongoing need to support behavioral health services”

“Individuals who need these services can’t wait and this inaction is a blatant disregard for vulnerable constituents and the mental health care system,” Wolf said.

Though a handful of voting days are on the calendar in November, House Democrats blamed Republican leaders for not addressing the issue, which will not be taken up again until January at the earliest when a new legislative session begins.

“Unfortunately, the Republicans’ failure to prioritize this measure perpetuates the effects of Pennsylvania’s chronic underfunding of mental health and mental illness programs and delays the funds from getting to the entities that need them,” the House Democratic caucus said in a statement.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said House Republicans worked with the other caucuses and Gov. Tom Wolf’s office to evaluate a report on mental health care needs and prepare a bill for a vote this week. 

“However, given the broad nature of the recommendations in the report, we were unable to reach consensus on legislative details within our limited number of session days. We anticipate continued work on this over the coming weeks and months so we can act on it in the next session,” Gottesman said.

Legislation accompanying the budget this summer established the Behavioral Health Commission to meet with members of the mental health community to determine how the $100 million in one-time funding would best be used. 

The commission included Collett; Rep. Wendi Thomas, R-Bucks; and Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, who is open about his mental health struggles, and who championed the funding boost, as well as more than 20 mental health community stakeholders.

The commission held hearings in Centre and Dauphin counties where it took testimony from providers to ascertain mental health care needs in rural and urban parts of the state. 

It recommended allocating the money as follows:

  • $37 million for workforce development to train and retain mental health workers; 
  • $23.5 million to provide care to people in jail or reentering the community, create diversionary programs as alternatives to jail for people with mental health or substance use disorders;
  • and $39 million for services including crisis centers, mental health integration into primary health care, and societal determinants of health such as housing.

Collett said the most frustrating aspect of the inaction on the commission’s recommendations is that its members received zero feedback from lawmakers. 

“With feedback, we might have been able to tweak some of that. We could have been able to make adjustments so that it could have even greater impact,” Collett said.

In the meantime, providers will maintain the status quo, Collett said.

But Karin Annerhed-Harris of Resources for Human Development, a nonprofit human services provider in Philadelphia, said the delay means that programs that are ready to launch will sit on the shelf until funding for training and hiring becomes available.

“We need this funding to support the most vulnerable people in our society,” Annerhed-Harris said.

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.