This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.
Pennsylvania’s stalled budget redirects $100 million earmarked for adult mental health programs to in-school services, robbing an already overburdened system of promised relief, some Democrats say.
State lawmakers agreed last year to spend a portion of Pennsylvania’s federal stimulus money on adult mental health services, though they did not direct the funding to a specific purpose. Instead, the legislature convened a 24-member commission made up of lawmakers, doctors, and other professionals in the field to make recommendations.
After holding 17 hours of hearings, the group delivered its report in October 2022; two lawmakers soon after introduced legislation to put the plan into action.
But instead of advancing either bill, the Republican-controlled state Senate introduced then passed a budget that uses the money for an existing school-based mental health services program.
State Sen. Maria Collett (D., Montgomery) and state Rep. Mike Schlossberg (D., Lehigh) sat on the Behavioral Health Commission and drafted the legislation to spend the $100 million. They’re now calling for the money to be restored to its original purpose.
“I genuinely wish I had an answer as to why the Senate chose to go this route,” Schlossberg told Spotlight PA.
Collett and Schlossberg’s bills were identical when introduced. They would use $100 million to create a series of grants for services like telemedicine, workforce retention and development, integrating behavioral health in substance use disorder treatment, and delivering psychiatric care in a primary care setting.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say that patients facing mental illness can wait for weeks in emergency rooms waiting for a bed,” James James, a psychiatrist at St. Luke’s University Health Network, said at a news conference Thursday. “Or people that are on our floors already can wait months before they get the right resources to be able to be discharged.”
The Democratic-controlled state House passed Schlossberg’s bill in June, with dozens of Republicans voting in favor.
Collett and Schlossberg said Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro expressed support for the legislation to them directly. Because of that bipartisan backing, the lawmakers said they thought the legislation would be passed into law or folded into this year’s budget.
Instead, the main budget bill introduced by the state Senate — which leadership said was negotiated with Shapiro — put the $100 million toward an existing grant program for school-based mental health services; it was funded through recurring revenue streams in last year’s budget.
Under this new arrangement, the program would not have a dedicated funding stream next year since the federal stimulus money is temporary, and lawmakers would have to either cut funding or find a different source of revenue.
The state budget has yet to be finalized due to a procedural impasse, but both the state House and state Senate approved it. In the midst of a high-profile disagreement over private school vouchers, mental health got little attention from either chamber.
Schlossberg said he now sees a few different avenues for lawmakers to correct what he and Collett see as a misstep.
“I almost don’t care which pot the money comes from. It’s irrelevant,” Schlossberg said. “I just want the money out the door. People need it.”
The legislature could redirect the $100 million back to adult mental health services through the still-unpassed fiscal code bill that accompanies the main budget legislation, Schlossberg said, though that path could leave school-based mental health funding in the lurch.
Lawmakers could also pass one of the standalone bills and find a new source of funding. He pointed to the $13 billion Pennsylvania currently has in its reserves.
At the news conference in Harrisburg this week, lawmakers and mental health experts called for the funding to be restored. James, of St. Luke’s University Health Network, said he considers workforce development to be a particularly pressing need.
Even when patients find the courage to reach out, he noted, they often can’t find mental health services.
“When there’s a lack of resources, tools, and support, the human spark is often robbed of the fuel it needs to light the fire of achievement,” James said. “I ask the state policymakers to ensure that behavioral health patients can connect to the fuel that they need to fight the darkness.”
State Senate Republicans did not respond to Spotlight PA’s request for comment. Collett said she received no feedback on mental health spending from the caucus throughout the planning process.
Leadership also didn’t take an active role in the commission that formulated recommendations for spending the money.
Each leader of the four caucuses in the General Assembly appointed a person to the commission that studied the issue. Three chose to appoint legislators, but state Senate Republicans instead appointed a doctor specializing in behavioral health.
“To have the work of these dedicated individuals cast aside in the way it seems to have been by my colleagues on the Republican side in the Senate is devastating,” Collett said. “I don’t even know what the barriers are. When we asked for feedback on our recommendations, we didn’t get any. They just didn’t bother to write back.”
A spokesperson for Shapiro did not answer a question from Spotlight PA about the governor’s stance on how the $100 million should be spent.
Instead, he sent a statement reiterating Shapiro’s support for mental health services.
“Investing in mental health is a priority for Republicans and Democrats alike — and Governor Shapiro has heard directly from Pennsylvanians from Westmoreland County to the Lehigh Valley who want their elected leaders to work together to get this done,” the statement said. “The Governor knows we must come together to invest in these critically important resources, and he will continue working to secure every dollar possible to invest in Pennsylvanians’ mental health.”
Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.
Get daily updates from WHYY News!