Governor Wolf promises action on mental health, but doesn’t say how it will be funded

A sign describes the governor's

A sign describes the governor's "Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters" plan. (Brett Sholtis/Transforming Health)

This article originally appeared on PA Post

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf says his administration will work to improve mental health care in the commonwealth and remove the stigma experienced by many people struggling with mental illness.

Wolf said the “all-agency effort,” called “Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters,” is patterned after his administration’s fight to prevent opioid addiction and help people recover.

The need for improving mental health services became apparent after discussions with some of the people tasked with Wolf’s Opioid Command Center, as well as with work groups on gun violence, suicide prevention and vulnerable populations, Wolf said.

Wolf also pointed to a 2017 University of Southern California study that found 1 million Pennsylvanians “struggled with psychological distress at least once in 2015,” and 27 percent of Pennsylvanians had a mental health need that year that didn’t receive treatment.

The governor’s plan includes:

  • A public campaign to encourage conversations about mental health care
  • Increasing resources for children and young adults by doing things like placing social workers in schools
  • Suicide prevention efforts by the state departments of Labor & Industry, Military and Veterans Affairs and Aging
  • Pressuring insurers to abide by mental health parity regulations, i.e. treating mental illness the same as physical ailments for the purpose of covering mental health treatment. Wolf’s plan notes the state insurance department’s recent reports that show insurance companies “are not adequately meeting federal and state requirements for mental health parity.”

“We don’t want anyone to reach out for help only to be deterred by the cost, or by the struggle to figure out which therapist or which treatment is covered,” Wolf said.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf talks to reporters about the “Reach Out PA: Your Mental Health Matters” campaign Thur., Jan. 2, 2020. At left, Department of Human Services Secretary Theresa Miller. At right, palliative care social worker Tanisha Bowman, who spoke about her experiences. (Brett Sholtis/Transforming Health)

Transforming Health and PA Post have reported extensively on problem areas in mental health services in Pennsylvania, including reporting the fact that county mental health and intellectual disabilities offices are stretched thin after a 10 percent funding cut that happened in 2013 under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

At a press conference Thursday, Wolf declined to say whether he would support a funding increase for those services, something mental health advocates are pushing for as budget season approaches.

And unlike the governor’s effort to address the opioid crisis—which got $56 million in federal funds last year—federal resources for this plan may be limited, according to Wolf administration officials.

“There is some SAMHSA funding, but not to the level that has been dedicated to the opioid crisis,” said Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, using the acronym for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Pennsylvania Army National Guard veteran James Stafford spoke about his own experiences seeking mental health services after returning from military deployments. (Brett Sholtis/Transforming Health)

Wolf also declined to say whether he supports integrating the state’s Behavioral HealthChoices and Physical HealthChoices Medicaid programs, a key topic among people who work in the field.

The County Commissioners’ Association of Pennsylvania lauded Wolf’s announcement, while bringing up those issues.

“Increasing mental health base funds for expanded services, beds and diversions is the top priority for Pennsylvania counties in 2020,” said CCAP Executive Director Lisa Schaefer.

“At the same time, the commonwealth must continue to support the successful Behavioral HealthChoices program, which for the past 20 years has allowed each county the flexibility to deliver mental health and drug and alcohol services to Pennsylvanians enrolled in Medicaid,” Schaefer said.

At Hospital and Health System Association of Pennsylvania, CEO Andy Carter said there’s always room for innovation and improvements, but that won’t fix essential problems like lack of licensed therapists and long wait times for services.

“No amount of better coordination is going to mask the fact that we have a very badly over-stressed and under-resourced mental health system,” Carter said.

The governor is hosting a round-table discussion Friday at Muhlenberg College, which he said will help his team learn more about where to focus their efforts. Wolf didn’t have a timeline for the listening phase of the plan.

“I want to move as quickly as I possibly can,” he said.

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