Mental Health Caucuses Watch Funding in Recession
By Mikel Chavers, CSG Associate Editor
Mental health funding, just like other state-funded services, isn’t immune to a down economy. But mental health caucuses in states may help to ease the pain of strapped mental health budgets with creative ideas and a sharper focus on the funds.
That’s according to Western state legislators touting the caucuses at The Council of State Governments-WEST 63rd annual meeting Sunday.
Caucuses are strong convening boards, especially in times of economic stress, officials said. For example, “This year in Montana, there aren’t going to be any mental health money bills, it’s going to be about statutory structures and cost-savings,” said Dan Aune, executive director of Mental Health America of Montana.
That said, mental health caucuses can play a role in these bills—even when there’s no money from the state budget to go around.
At least eight states have structured mental health caucuses, including Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Oregon. Other states have informal mental health caucuses like the one in Montana.
One of those states with a formal mental health caucus is Colorado. The state has quite a history and model with caucuses, according to Colorado Sen. Suzanne Williams.
Legislators became interested in forming a mental health caucus when the economy went south, the budget was cut and various mental health programs became victims of cuts, she said.
“We’re stronger if we work together and have the same message, as we all know. Can we maintain a firewall around our mental health services funding? And I say we can,” Williams said.
Since Colorado launched its mental health caucus, the state’s mental health funding was kept steady for a few years until it was cut in 2009 and 2010 because of the down economy, according to Williams. But, instead of cutting services, the mental health caucus pushed for consolidating locations of services—an alternative approach.
“All the states have had this same issue of how to protect mental health services … of what have you cut and what are you going to protect next,” Williams said. “Now that the stimulus funds are gone, what are we going to cut, what are we going to protect and how are we going to work with our nonprofits?”
To Williams point, New Mexico Sen. John Sapien recommends states set up formal mental health caucuses to bring together stakeholders and weigh in on budget cuts and creative ways to handle those cuts.
But at the same time, mental health caucuses can help shape the discussion surrounding federal health care reform.
“There’s obviously power in numbers (and) with the conversation of health reform going, one of the challenges we run into is that mental health services doesn’t get lost in the minutia,” Sapien said.