Topeka — Mental health advocates praised the Legislature, but the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center didn't get what it wanted most.
Mental health advocates are praising weekend action by the Kansas Legislature, saying the addition of new money to programs that serve mentally ill children and the homeless will help keep thousands of Kansans out of hospitals, jails or foster care.
The House and Senate on Saturday resolved differences over the state budget, agreeing among other things to spend $7.25 million on children's mental health -- $5 million of it on a new program called KanFocus. Lawmakers also agreed to spend $750,000 for local programs that assist the homeless mentally ill. The homeless programs otherwise would have disappeared because of discontinued federal aid.
"Children's mental health funding is where the big story is," said Ellen Piekalkiewicz, policy director for the Association of Mental Health Centers.
Ten years ago state policymakers started a mental health reform aimed at closing state hospitals and shifting treatment of the mentally ill to noninstitutional settings in local communities. But funding for the reform up to now has been steered disproportionately to services for mentally ill adults.
"The Legislature has funded the final missing piece of mental health reform," Piekalkiewicz said. "Right now there are about 12,000 mentally ill adults and about 11,000 children. But children have received about half the money of adult programs. The reform was geared mostly to adults. This new funding the Legislature put in helps fill that gap."
Advocates say they also are excited because the money will help fund KanFocus, a children's program designed and first started in Kansas with a federal grant.
"It's based on a model developed in southeast Kansas by Kansans not out-of-state consultants," Piekalkiewicz said.
The model requires collaboration among schools, law enforcement, mental health workers and the families of the afflicted children.
"The data from southeast Kansas shows that with mentally ill children, intensive wrap-around programs can keep them in their homes and out of the juvenile justice system and foster care," she said. "It empowers families to take care of their own kids."
"Children's mental health is probably the single most significant part of the budget we passed," said Rep. Rocky Nichols, D-Topeka, a member of the House Appropriations Committee who pushed hard for the additional funding.
Still unclear is how the new money will be allocated among the state's 30 community mental health centers.
Until that is known, it is too soon to celebrate, said Tom Petrizzo, a spokesman for Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in Lawrence.
"There's obviously some additional resources that we're pleased to hear about," he said. "But we need more details. The majority of it targets children with severe emotional disorders."
Petrizzo said he expects the new funding for homeless programs will be spent in Wichita, Kansas City and Topeka.
Top priority for Bert Nash this year, he said, was legislative approval of a larger state role in funding services for Medicaid patients. That hasn't happened yet and appears unlikely when lawmakers return to Topeka for the veto session later this month.
This year local funding provided $2.1 million for Bert Nash versus $1.9 million from the state and $1.4 million from the federal government. A larger state role in Medicaid funding would have freed local dollars for expanded or improved services within the community, Petrizzo said.
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