In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, the national conversation has turned to ensuring the health and safety of our children, with an emphasis on mental health care.
Unfortunately, community mental health centers have lost $15 million in funding (a 50 percent cut) for grants to serve the uninsured since 2007, while the number of people without insurance served has increased 19 percent over the same period. The loss of support for behavioral and mental health initiatives has had a particular effect on children in Kansas schools, with programs such as Working to Recognize Alternative Possibilities (WRAP) suffering a drastic decline in funding.
WRAP places highly trained mental health professionals in our public schools to provide mental health services on site, where kids need it most. But WRAP’s ability to reach every Lawrence school has diminished to only include both high schools and two of the four middle schools. This reduced coverage means mental illness in elementary-aged children in the Lawrence area could go largely unidentified.
Right now, Congress is debating legislation that would make a meaningful national commitment to community mental health services. The Excellence in Mental Health Act would restore a steady funding stream for community behavioral health centers – $1.4 billion in Medicaid funding over 10 years. The services funded by the Excellence Act would be aimed at uninsured and low-income Americans with the most serious and persistent mental health conditions – the very people most in need of help and least able to access it.
We know that treatment for mental health issues at an early age saves lives. But it also saves money. The National Governors Association estimated in 2005 that annually states collectively spent upward of $1 billion on medical costs associated with suicides and suicide attempts by youths under the age of 20. The cost of treating the mentally ill with emergency room services is nearly $6 billion every year.
If the Excellence Act passes, Kansas could see millions of dollars in funding restored. After years of funding cuts from federal and state budgets, that money could make a real difference in our state. The Excellence Act would ensure that community behavioral health centers cover a broad range of mental health services, including 24-hour crisis care, increased integration of physical and behavioral health needs as well as expanded support for families of people living with mental health issues.
Providing community-based mental health services is a good investment. When people receive timely and effective treatment, it reduces expensive ER visits and hospitalizations. Members of law enforcement recognize the potential savings as well; they have seen their resources increasingly diverted away from public safety in order to address unmet mental health needs. Even David Keene, president of the National Rifle Association, has advocated spending more money on mental health care in order to fix a very broken system.
Since the shootings in December, people throughout the community asked me, “Can’t we do something?” Speaking to mental health advocates last month, Gov. Sam Brownback noted the need for “our state’s mental health safety net system (to be) more robust and effective.” Similarly, Congresswoman Lynn Jenkins, representing Kansas’ 2nd District, co-sponsored the bipartisan Excellence Act in the House of Representatives (H.R. 1263). These leaders have chosen to address the needs of Kansans and Americans, and I hope support for their efforts will continue to grow.
While there is broad bipartisan support for improving access to behavioral health services, the fate of the Excellence Act is uncertain. Some in Congress are reluctant to increase federal funding — even for essential and cost-effective programs — at a time of significant budget cuts. But compare the cost of this bill over a decade to four times that amount spent every year on emergency room mental health expenses. While Rep. Jenkins is co-sponsoring the bill, Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts appears to be withholding his support.
We can no longer afford not to make a significant investment in community mental health services. We cannot further delay fixing the problem. To defer funding for truly cost-effective solutions would be financially — and socially — irresponsible.
Support for community mental health centers is not a Republican issue or a Democratic one. This is a moral and social issue affecting each and every one of us. Though limited funding has forced programs like WRAP to scale back, the behavioral, emotional and psychological needs of students have not diminished. Please urge our elected officials in Washington to take the necessary steps to support mental health initiatives.