Pa. legislature allocated an extra $100M for mental health this year. They haven’t spent any of it
The Pennsylvania General Assembly allocated $100 million in this year’s budget to address mental health needs and appointed a 24-member commission to recommend how the one-time federal funds should be divided up and spent.
But it appears that possible disagreements over the commission’s recommendations, combined with the legislature’s few remaining days left to act during this session, mean the millions of dollars allocated likely won’t be sent out this year.
The House has only three scheduled session days left this year; the Senate has one. All are in mid-November, after the Nov. 8 general election. New legislators will take office in January, along with a new governor.
The lack of swift action has drawn complaints from advocacy and local government groups that would have received the funds to address mental health needs, which have spiked since the pandemic.
Having millions of dollars delayed is “incredibly disappointing” said Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania. Counties hope to use the funds for things like addressing depression and anxiety, suicide prevention programs, programs to divert people with serious mental health needs from jails, and more, she said.
Addressing adult mental health “remains a priority,” said Erica Clayton Wright, a spokesperson for the Senate Republican caucus. Republicans are the majority party in both the state House and Senate.
However, she said, the caucus needs to review the recommendations through its committee process. She would not cite any specific disagreements with what the commission recommended, but said, “they’re recommendations, so we also have to vet those recommendations and consider other ones.”
The commission met four times throughout August and September, putting out a report in early October.
Among its recommendations:
- $37 million should be used to support behavioral health workers, as professionals have been leaving the field and it is challenging to fill vacant positions. “In some instances, fast food restaurants and other non-skilled labor positions can offer more competitive wages and better benefits for work that is less emotionally demanding. Pennsylvanians need more professional behavioral health resources,” the commission said.
- $23.5 million to better serve adults with behavioral health needs in the criminal justice system
- $39 million be used to broaden the scope of services and supports available to Pennsylvanians
- $500,000 to study the impact of projects supported by these one-time funds
Among the most dire needs identified was workforce support.
“Maybe we have initiatives that might … put a counselor in every school or a counselor in every E.R. so that we have people that are available that are trained and ready to assist. But the problem is we don't have the people. So, we really had to focus on that,” said State Sen. Maria Collett, a Montgomery County Democrat who served on the commission.
When the commission submitted its recommendations earlier this month as to how to best spend the funds, it asked legislators to move quickly.
“The Commission would like to stress the importance of swift action and ask that the funding authorized as a part of this year’s budget be appropriated before the end of this legislative session,” its authors said.
“I am disappointed that we're in this place where we—the commission—did its job,” Collett said. “We met, we discussed the needs, and we really crafted a report and recommendations that will go toward making sure that $100 million is really best allocated. We did the work we needed to do, and now it really is incumbent on the legislature, the General Assembly, to do the work that's required of them to get this across the finish line. And I am disappointed that we are here on our second-to-last day scheduled for session in the Senate, and this is not a measure that we're taking up,” she said, speaking on Wednesday.
The commission also recommended state legislators consider increasing the amount of mental health funding to counties. The commission noted that in 2012, this base funding was cut by 10% and has not increased since.
“The need for behavioral health services has steeply risen since the 2020 start of the COVID pandemic and, while utilization is higher, the funding sustaining the services has remained stagnant, forcing counties to do more with less. … The Commission strongly urges the legislature to bring county base funding in line with the cost associated with providing these critical behavioral health services,” it noted in its report.
Still, several commission members said they are hopeful the funds can be disbursed early next year.
“We’re of course disappointed that it doesn’t look like there will be enough time to enact legislation before the end of the year; however, we are optimistic that this investment remains a priority for all parties,” The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania said in a statement.
State Rep. Mike Schlossberg, a Lehigh Valley Democrat who served on the commission, said he is disappointed in the delay, but is confident the funds will be sent out eventually to address mental health needs.
“The hardest part, I think, was appropriating the money. The money's been appropriated and now we just have to hammer out the details of it. And if that has to be done in the next session… [it’s] less than ideal, but so be it,” he said.