Panel: Expedite mental health funding

Advocates and officials alike are eager to use the additional $800 million in mental health funding included in the government’s latest Good Use budget. But it could take weeks, or months, for agencies to put mental health support legislation into effect, pending red tape for state and federal funds.

Dozens of providers, patients, advocates and officials testified about the greatest issues surrounding the state’s mental health system during a public hearing Wednesday held by state attorney general Letitia James.

“What are we doing to ensure that private hospitals share the burden of caring for individuals with mental illness?” James said near the start of the session, which lasted several hours in the evening.

“I think you’re raising a critical issue,” JCCA CEO Ron Richter replied.

More than 42% of adults in the United States have symptoms of anxiety or a depressive disorder, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a number that has more than doubled since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

New Yorkers are no exception, as James says there are fewer than 5,000 psychiatric beds statewide, and 247 for children.

This deficiency forces people in psychological distress to stay away from emergency departments, especially children and young adults. Some people with mental health or behavioral problems go to emergency rooms three to four times, and wait two to seven days for an inpatient bed.

Uninsured children and patients are often refused mental health care due to lack of access to education or language barriers.

“Things happen like Buffalo and Texas, where children are killed, when we have warning signals about young people who are struggling hard and end up hurting others,” Richter said. “We never want to see that happen again. We know the warning signs. We just don’t provide the treatment.”

About 400 inpatient psychiatric beds have been phased out in the state since March 2020, either to be converted for COVID use or removed from service.

The family’s short-term psychiatric decline in New York continued for decades. James plans to use the information collected at her office’s hearing for use in future investigations into allegations of inadequate mental health treatment.

State Senate Health Committee Chairman Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat from the Bronx, stressed the need for Medicaid reforms.

Facilities with more than 16 inpatient beds do not receive Medicaid reimbursement.

“New York State, unfortunately, over the last 10 years, anything Medicaid or mental health or public health has been kind of doomed to austerity, and I think we’ve seen the effects of that,” he said.

Mental health services are still severely understaffed or underpaid.

The government’s most recent budget included $4.7 billion for the state’s office of mental health — an increase of $813 million, with $10 million set aside to address staffing shortages in state-run psychiatric hospitals.

“Funding for the Mental Health Office increased by about $813 million or 20% from fiscal year 2022 ($3.3 billion) to fiscal year 2023 ($4.1 billion), budget department spokesman Shams Tariq said on Wednesday.

The budget department won’t answer a question about plans to maintain high funding for mental health in future budgets, especially as federal aid to fight epidemics has dried up.

“The funding is budgeted, but again, it hasn’t been released, so it’s another example of something that needs to be expedited,” said Andrea Smith, president and CEO of the Governmental Alliance for Children’s Behavioral Health.

Mental health officials want Governor Cathy Hochhol to sign an executive order to release state funds and collect the federal award after it is approved.

The stigma surrounding people with behavioral or mental health problems has led to a lack of state and federal investment for generations.

Hospitals were going to close, people were taken out of institutions in the community, but the money never followed through,” said Glen Lipman, CEO of the New York State Mental Health Association. This has been causing headaches for decades and decades.

Lipman shared testimony at the hearing showing the need to increase mental health education, support and access to treatment throughout life. He hopes that the attorney general’s call and the normalization of mental health discussions will help increase the funding and services people need.

“Raising public awareness is really important,” Lipman said. “Once we start to normalize this, then we can get the resources for that.”

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