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Qualified gratitude on mental health
State leaders approved extra money for behavioral health programs, but there is still inadequate funding to meet demand for basic services.
Sunday, March 17, 2013
Virginia lawmakers did well in adding about $7 million for mental health services to the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Still, not well enough to keep Blue Ridge Behavioral Healthcare from having to turn away more people than not when they come seeking help each month.
The Roanoke region’s community services board will get some additional money for certain programs, executive director Tim Steller expects. “But what we need is money for basic capacity.”
The fall 2012 report by the agency’s adult services director is illustrative, Steller said in a phone interview last week. Of an average 279 people who sought help in September and October, only about 30 percent were admitted.
“Most of them needed something. They, or someone else, thought they needed services. We had to refer them somewhere else.”
Mental health advocates don’t want to sound ungrateful. Mary Ann Bergeron, executive director of the Virginia Association of Community Services Boards, said the General Assembly did a great job in taking limited money, sifting the priorities and coming up with a little more for crisis services in each region.
But she acknowledged Steller’s plea could be echoed throughout the state. Flexible general fund dollars for basic services have gone down — though not in Gov. Bob McDonnell’s administration. “From 2005 till mid-2010, we lost sizeable amounts of money, 10 percent one year.”
Some was restored in 2008, after the Virginia Tech tragedy revealed flaws in an underfunded system. “But two years later, we lost all of that and more.”
This year, the Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut inspired lawmakers to respond again with crisis intervention money, including funds for suicide prevention programs and mental health first-aid training to help people recognize signs that others might need help.
Good ideas. “But that doesn’t take away the need for basic services,” Bergeron said.
Indeed not, considering her estimate that “statewide, 50 percent of people with serious mental illnesses do not have a funding source.”
That alone is more than enough reason for Virginia to drop its opposition to a Medicaid expansion paid for mostly by the federal government, and the only chance most of the state’s working poor adults will ever have coverage.
“If you’re not going to insure people, you have to figure out a way for them to get at least basic services that will keep them in the community and out of trouble,” Bergeron warned.
Virginia has not.
This despite her assessment that, “The CSBs have used every bit of creativity and as much ingenuity and stretching of dollars as they’ve been able to do.”
In the Roanoke area, the community supports a few other resources. Family Service of Roanoke Valley, a United Way agency, offers counseling on a sliding fee scale.
And Mental Health America of Roanoke Valley has become an invaluable partner as sponsor of the Roanoke Valley Mental Health Care Collaborative Clinic.
“Our clinic is a clinic of last resort,” Executive Director Diane Kelly explained. If Blue Ridge can’t take people “because their criteria is limited as a function of funding,” those turned away are likely to end up at the collaborative.
“It’s a significant problem,” Kelly said of the CSB’s inability to meet demand. “We turn away people all the time.” She recruits volunteer professionals who offer counseling and psychiatric services on a regular monthly schedule to people who have no insurance and limited income and have been turned away elsewhere.
Appointments are limited by the number of volunteers. “All the appointments we had for February were filled by noon Feb. 1. For March, by 9 a.m. March 1.”
She’s looking for more volunteer psychiatrists, by the way.
It’s time everyone stepped up to the plate.
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