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Pa. counties say more funds for mental health services needed in state budget

The Capitol building in Harrisburg on Oct. 12, 2023.
Jeremy Long
/
WITF
The Capitol building in Harrisburg on Oct. 12, 2023.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro unveiled a $48 billion state budget plan last week that would increase funds for mass transit, public schools, and make investments in economic development.

But officials from local counties say the first term Democrat’s proposal fell short on one of their top priorities: a key funding source for counties to provide mental health services.

The base mental health funding line item is used by counties to support inpatient services, outpatient therapy, crisis services, working with local schools to support student mental health, and more, said Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

That funding received a $20 million boost in the current year’s budget, and the governor’s proposal would give that line item an additional $20 million in funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

But Schaefer and others have said that’s not enough, given past budget cuts and many years of stagnant funding; this base funding was one of several human services that took a 10% budget cut in 2012 and had been flat funded for years until this year.

The County Commissioners Association is calling for an additional $250 million in funds next year.

“Those extra funds would help the county maintain and rebuild the existing safety net of services, which is stretched thin,” according to Sherene Hess, a commissioner in Indiana County. “The Base Funds are critical to the county because they allow for community residential programs, family-based support, outpatient care, and crisis intervention. The more treatment individuals can receive through community-based programs, the lower the risk of affected individuals will have an experience involving hospitalization or incarceration.”

Kevin Boozel, a commissioner in Butler County, said when state mental health hospitals were closed in past years, counties were told they would have enough funds from the state to provide community care, but that hasn’t happened.

In addition to past cuts, “we're not seeing the [funding] increases to keep up with the increased cost and employment and all the things that go with that,” he said.

Boozel also echoed Hess’s concerns about people with serious mental health needs ultimately ending up in jail.

“If we're not providing the necessary and adequate care in the community, then people fall down. They have problems. And… now, since they can't end up in a long-term treatment facility, unfortunately, [people] are ending up in our jails.”

The governor’s budget proposal also includes an additional $100 million increase for school mental health, but it makes more sense to invest in the existing county-run mental health system, county officials said.

“We don't want to create a county versus school approach,” said Armstrong County Commissioner Pat Fabian. “You know, counties are already doing these services, and these programs …So, that's a real concern for us.”

A spokesman for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services declined to comment, saying it was too early in the budget negotiating process.

The governor’s office said mental health funding is a priority, and pointed to the inclusion of more mental health funds for counties in the current budget, as well as an additional $100 million for school mental health services in federal pandemic funds in the current budget

“Governor Shapiro recognizes that mental health is just as important as physical health — and that’s why he was the first Governor in more than a decade to take action last year to boost county mental health base funding,” said spokesperson Manuel Bonder. 

“This year, the Governor is building on that investment by proposing an increase to community-based mental health services by an additional $20 million this year and calling for additional funds in successive years, reaching an overall increase of $60 million per year increase by 2025-26.”

The budget address kicks off an annual process of both public budget hearings in the state House and Senate, as well as behind-the-scenes wrangling between the governor and legislative leaders as to the final cost of the spending plan and what it will include.

A new fiscal year for the state begins July 1, though there have been many years where a budget has not been agreed on by that date.

Kate Giammarise