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A Pa. state commission on mental health makes recommendations for using ARPA money

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF
The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg May 25, 2022

 Tom Gralish / Philadelphia Inquirer

The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg May 25, 2022

A state commission on adult behavioral health released its recommendations on how to spend $100 million set aside from the American Rescue Plan.

The Commission of Behavioral Health proposes spending $37 million on workforce development for behavioral health professionals. The money would go toward salary increases and enhanced benefits for behavioral health professionals to encourage them to stay in the field. Additionally, those funds could also provide tuition assistance for students preparing to work in the behavioral health field.

 “I think that every industry is experiencing the great resignation or a shifting culture around staff retention and employment,” said Jennifer Jordan, vice-president of regulatory advocacy at the Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania. “I think that the behavioral health care  communities experience it doubly with burnout, and concerns around safety, wage stagnation. All of those things are factors in why people decide to leave or choose to stay in a workplace.”

 The Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, which represents 235 hospitals, is urging lawmakers to the commission’s spending plan for those ARPA funds. According to the network of hospitals, more people are seeking mental health services at hospital emergency departments and experiencing longer wait times because those facilities don’t have the personnel needed. 

The commission also recommends allotting over $23 million for integrating mental health and substance abuse services  in the criminal justice system. The focus is on keeping people with mental health conditions away from law enforcement and prisons. The commission proposes allotting over $13.5 million for mental health and  substance abuse treatments for people who are incarcerated, as well as wraparound services for people who just got out of prison. Five million would go toward a pre-arrest diversion program that connects people in crisis to mental health resources. Another $5 million should go to county crisis first responders, according to the recommendation.

A group that represents county commissioners across the state supports the recommendations. Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioner Association of Pennsylvania, says the influx of money  will help bolster a “mental health system that is crumbling.”  Schaefer also warns about potential pitfalls of depending on one-time federal dollars.

“While this is really positive, and we can make good use of those dollars, we also want to be sure that we’re not creating these unsustainable long-term obligations and not setting up programs that when the federal funding isn’t there anymore that we can’t support,” Schaefer said.

Instead, Schaefer says, an increase in the state budget’s recurring mental health appropriation would be more sustainable in the long-run.

“If we put an increase into that appropriation, and it keeps on going over the long term, that means counties can know they can depend on it, they know they can rely on it, and they can have confidence if they’re expanding programs and doing what they can to bolster programs, but that funding is not going to go wait in the future, like the federal dollars eventually will.”

Representative Mike Schlossberg (D-Lehigh), a member of the Behavioral Health Commission, says the  recommendations are not being drafted in legislative form. But the General Assembly does not have much time left to consider the bill; the House has only three voting  days  left in the session, and the Senate has six.. However, Schlossberg says there’s a chance–if there’s widespread support for the spending plan–that the bill could be packaged into another bill to speed up the process.

“I’m cautiously optimistic we can get this done, and I will add that, you know, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. While certainly it’s not perfect for everybody, I think people understand the need to get this money out to the streets as quickly as possible,”Schlossberg said.

The state budget for 2022-2023 included an increase of $43 million dollars for mental health programs. That line item in the budget had not seen a boost that significant for over a decade. 


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