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Pennsylvania counties see potential mental health funding boost as a “down payment”

Advocates and service providers fear a proposed $20 million funding increase for community mental health services would not go far enough.

  • Sam Dunklau
The Pennsylvania Capitol building in Aug. 2022.

 Sam Dunklau / WITF

The Pennsylvania Capitol building in Aug. 2022.

Gov. Josh Shapiro wants Pennsylvania lawmakers to give $20 million more to counties to help them fund mental health services they provide to schools, correctional institutions, and more. But advocates and leaders say that money would only go so far.

Pennsylvania has funded county mental health agencies the same way for the last decade. Under former Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration in 2013, the state slashed what it pays for mental health and other human services by 10 percent. Mental health professionals have lobbied for years to restore those cuts.

All the while, more and more groups of people who can’t turn to private services have needed help managing mental health crises. Numerous studies have shown those needs multiplied during the COVID-19 pandemic. One, from the Kaiser Family Foundation, showed a 30 percent spike in the number of U.S. adults who reported feeling symptoms of anxiety or depression between January 2019 and January 2021.  

Annie Strite is the Mental Health and Intellectual Disabilities administrator for Cumberland and Perry counties. She oversees mental health services, from crisis intervention to in-home rehabilitation, across the area. Strite said Thursday that her office faces a $2.5 million deficit, as it has struggled to address higher caseloads, staffing shortages and rising provider costs.

“We didn’t really recover from the cut we faced in 2012,” Strite said. “[and] if the governor’s budget is approved the way it is, we’re very likely to need to make service cuts.”

Strite said she and other county leaders will be examining what cuts they might need to make, but are hoping any reduction does the “least amount of harm” to the communities her agency serves. Meanwhile, Strite said each of the counties’ 84 residential mental health beds are occupied and 90 more people who need that service are on a months-long waiting list. Fifteen percent to 20 percent of the behavioral health staff positions are unfilled.

We’re trying to be fiscally savvy and wise with our expenses,” Strite said.

“To be able to adequately serve our community, I’d love to have an extra position even in our office, but we certainly can’t afford that right now,” she added.

Shapiro’s $20 million ask, if approved, would be the first state funding increase for county mental health services in over a decade. State lawmakers set aside $100 million dollars in federal pandemic aid for those efforts last year, but failed to approve legislation that would have distributed the money.

County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania Executive Director Lisa Schaefer sees a potential boost as less of a fix and more of a “down payment.” She added the state will have to promise future funding boosts, something Shapiro said he wants to deliver on. If state lawmakers approve the request he unveiled Tuesday, counties would eventually see $60 million more dollars in funding by 2027.

“It’s a down payment in this budget proposal, a good investment toward the future,” Schaefer said. 

“We’re not going to fix a decade’s worth of flat funding in a single year, but $20 million plus successive increases really helps to build that long-term investment in the system,” she added.

Strite said even a modest funding boost would help Cumberland and Perry counties reduce the need to use other county agencies, like Corrections or Children and Youth services, to provide mental health support for people in need.

“If we were appropriately resourced, we would automatically see a benefit,” she said.

State lawmakers will likely land on a different funding number, if they agree to one at all, as they negotiate the budget in the next few months. The final state spending plan is due at the end of June.

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