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Pennsylvania mental health advocates applaud funding boost in new budget deal

County programs will get their first significant increase in over a decade — though some details remain uncertain.

  • Brett Sholtis
Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.

Mental health workers in Pennsylvania are optimistic after seeing a nearly $43 million increase for county programs in the new budget. 

The roughly 5% increase is the first significant bump for that line item in over a decade, said County Commissioners Association Executive Director Lisa Schaefer. She added that a 10% cut to county services in 2012 has long plagued behavioral health programs.

Those programs have seen a surge in demand amid overlapping crises — opioid addiction, the pandemic and a recent rise in suicide attempts and mental illnesses among children and teens.

Schaefer said the funding increase will help hire and retain desperately needed workers and add bed capacity for people who need round-the-clock care. “So that’s more people we can serve, that’s more people we can help, that’s more benefit that we can bring to our community.”

Schaefer noted that she is still awaiting clarification on the final breakdown of how the money will be distributed — and how much will go to community based programs rather than to state mental hospitals.

 

That’s also a concern for Montgomery County Mental Health Administrator Pam Howard.

“It is absolutely a positive to see money in the Governor’s budget for mental health,” said Howard, who also runs the county’s developmental disabilities and early intervention programs. “It is still unclear at this time what these dollars are targeted for, and specifically whether they will increase the county mental health allocations.”

County funds pay for services that medical insurance cannot, Howard said. Those include crisis services, student assistance programs and housing for people who experience significant challenges. She said it’s important that the funding increases go to bolstering those efforts.

Hospital and Health System Association President Andy Carter said the funding should take some stress off of hospital emergency departments, where too often people in crisis end up staying for days or weeks.

“Strengthening the behavioral health delivery system will help us to be able to discharge these patients so they get the care they deserve and the care that they actually need,” Carter said. 

He pointed out that the state is also setting aside $100 million in one-time federal COVID-19 relief funds to help primary care doctors provide some psychiatric services.

The budget also prioritizes programs such as the Nurse-Family Partnership, which had been initially under threat of a funding reduction, according to American Academy of Pediatrics Pennsylvania Chapter President Dr. Mary Ann Rigas. 

The group, which represents about 2,300 pediatricians in Pennsylvania, is “confident that such investments in early childhood care will increase the state’s ability to foster the development of its youngest residents,” Rigas said. “Moving forward, we urge PA policymakers to prioritize support for the postpartum population, namely through increased Medicaid coverage and screening for postpartum depression and anxiety.” 

New this year is a line item of $100 million for in-school support, the Associated Press reports. Every school district in the state will receive $100,000 as a base grant, and charter schools will get $70,000.

In addition, the state’s Safety and Security fund, which was established in 2018 to improve physical school safety after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, will also receive $100 million. The funds have historically been used for upgrading security — including adding cameras, safe entrances and personnel to school buildings.

The budget also includes nearly $30 million for Medicaid supplemental payments, HAP President Andy Carter added. Those funds help make sure people have access to things like trauma centers, burn units and critical access hospitals in rural areas. 

To Carter, that’s another reason to celebrate the budget’s passage at a time when political divisions make it harder for lobbyists and advocacy groups to get anything done.

“To see all sides of the political spectrum come together on behavioral health is truly remarkable and inspiring for us as we go forward.”

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