2019 Legislature: Mental health advocates push to restore funding cut in last session
(UM Community News Service) Montana’s mental health and substance abuse programs are being pushed to the limit, warns Behavioral Health Alliance of Montana Executive Director Mary Windecker.
Admissions to the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs have seen an increase of over 30 percent since the beginning of 2018, Windecker said. And that surge in need could not come at a worse time. Jan. 1 of this year is also when the latest in a series of cuts to state support for mental health providers kicked in.
Last legislative session, the state moved to slow the rate of increase in spending on mental health programs, a move that providers said amounted to a reduction. Following that session, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services went through two waves of cuts, one triggered by lower-than-expected tax revenues and a larger $49 million cut adopted during a special legislative session.
“The cuts decimated community-based mental health and substance abuse services,” Windecker said, adding the reductions led some people to lose their long-term targeted case managers. “If some are unable to stabilize, they’re admitted into the Montana state hospital system.”
Now, Windecker wants to see funding return to the level initially approved for 2017 and for funds to be reallocated, saying community-based programs are cheaper and grant greater access to rural parts of the state.
Montana Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, said she doesn’t believe those were the right cuts to make but added she is hopeful the Legislature can remedy most, if not, all the cuts that affected Montanans.
“Those services are essential in helping Montanan’s lead healthy, productive lives,” Dudik said.
But even if the state restores those funds, Windecker warned that funding is not enough in a state with the highest per capita suicide rate in the nation.
That is despite the fact that Montana has spent more than many neighboring states. A recent analysis from the Solutions Journalism Network found that Montana spent the equivalent of $241 per resident on state mental health services in the 2014-15 fiscal year, making it the seventh-most of any state in the nation. The Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment on the statistics, saying they could not confirm how the federal numbers were gathered.
Suicide, alcohol abuse, opioid and meth use are on the rise throughout the state and prompted Republican Attorney General Tim Fox to call for more investment in addiction and mental health treatment.
The bipartisan recognition of the need for services is likely to fuel much of the debate in the next legislative session. Last session, the Legislature passed two bills, one increasing access to behavioral health services and another to create certifications for behavioral health peer support specialists.
This story was produced by students reporting for the Community News Service, a service of the University of Montana School of Journalism. Editors with questions should contact reporter Keith Szudarski (email@example.com) or Lee Banville (firstname.lastname@example.org.)