As session nears end, Pa. counties urge Legislature to act on mental health funding

Wednesday Morning Coffee: Officials want lawmakers to spend $100M in one-time federal funds to shore up ‘crumbling’ system

By: - October 5, 2022 7:16 am

The floor of the Pa. House of Representatives (Capital-Star photo).

When the state House and Senate return to Harrisburg later this month, they’ll have just a handful of voting sessions on their respective calendars on either side of Election Day before packing it in for the year.

With that abbreviated schedule in mind, the lobbying group that represents county commissioners in all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties is calling on lawmakers to swiftly approve a one-time, $100 million allocation of federal money to shore up the state’s “crumbling” mental health system.

“There is so much at stake and action must be taken now,” said Bradford County Commissioner Daryl Miller, the president of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said in a statement.

The Legislature set aside the American Rescue Plan money as part of the 2022-23 state budget, according to the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, the hospital industry’s trade group.

In a report issued Tuesday, the state’s Behavioral Health Commission for Mental Health endorsed spending the money, which was the first step to distributing the cash, according to HAP.

“Solutions to complex systemic issues facing the behavioral health system will require continued partnership, sufficient funding, and renewed commitment to meeting the needs of Pennsylvanians struggling with a mental health diagnosis or substance use disorder,” the panel’s reported noted, according to HAP.

The commission recommended spending the money this way:

  • $37 million in workforce development
  • $23.5 million in criminal justice programs
  • $39 million to expand existing programs

Though the money only may “act as a temporary fix, this funding can have a major impact in the absence of increased General Fund support,” Miller continued. “However, it is just as important that the General Assembly and administration work with us to offer counties the flexibility to use that funding effectively to meet the unique challenges in our communities.”

Pennsylvania Senate Chambers. Source: WikiMedia Commons

In June, officials and advocates applauded the nearly $43 million, or roughly 5 percent, increase in the 2022-23 state budget for county mental health programs, WESA-FM in Pittsburgh reported, noting that it was first significant increase in about a decade.

But the spending plan for the fiscal year that started on July 1 flat-funded underlying county mental health “base” funds for the 12th year in a row, “meaning there was zero increase to the annual funding that provides long-term, sustainable funding for mental health services,” the county commissioners’ association said in its statement.

“When we ask counties how they would use an increase in funding for mental health, they don’t just give us one answer, or even just two,” the association’s executive director, Lisa Schaefer, said in a statement. “Our counties know exactly where the needs are in their communities.

“Unfortunately, they’ve been seeing it for a very long time, but they can’t, and [they] were never supposed to do this alone – they need the strong support of the state to improve their communities and the lives of their constituents,” Schaefer continued.

In its statement, the county commissioners association argued that officials “cannot properly address depression, anxiety, autism, substance abuse, suicide prevention and a variety of other crises without substantial support from this commission and the General Assembly, the governor and the administration going forward.”

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.