St. Luke’s holds panel on need for more mental health services funding

by Raj Das

Pennsylvania’s Mental Health System Reaching a Breaking Point, Experts Warn

Experts who recently convened at St. Luke’s Hospital-Sacred Heart in Pennsylvania have raised an alarming concern: the state’s mental health system is on the brink of collapse. As the need for mental health services continues to rise, the funding for these vital resources remains stagnant or even gets cut, aggravating an already dire situation.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, over 1.7 million Pennsylvanians reside in communities suffering from a severe lack of mental health professionals. Shockingly, five Pennsylvanians die by suicide every day, underscoring the urgent need for improved mental health services throughout the state.

To shed light on this issue, St. Luke’s University Health Network gathered county leaders, healthcare professionals, and mental health administrators from southeastern Pennsylvania. Public mental health services fall under the purview of individual counties, explained George Hartwick, Chair of the Human Services Committee of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and Dauphin County Commissioner.

Decades ago, mental health hospitals in Pennsylvania were emptied, and the focus shifted to implementing a community-based system. However, the anticipated reinvestment in community mental health services never materialized. “The idea that those dollars were supposed to follow and build this robust system was met with future cuts and the inability to actually understand the funding mechanics by which our systems are funded,” lamented Hartwick.

Dr. James A. James, Chair of Psychiatry for St. Luke’s, further emphasized the impact of insufficient funding on hospitals’ ability to provide adequate care. He recounted the story of a distressed young mother who required high-level inpatient behavioral health care. Sadly, the hospital couldn’t admit her due to the lack of available beds. Over the past five years, St. Luke’s had witnessed a meager increase from 56 to a maximum of 199 inpatient behavioral health beds. As a result, a significant number of mentally ill individuals are left without appropriate treatment, leading to prolonged suffering and possible relapses.

Recognizing the crisis at hand, the state county commissioners association and counties across Pennsylvania are demanding immediate action to address the funding shortfall. They are urging the state to develop a comprehensive plan for mental health resources, both in the present and future. To provide an immediate infusion of funds, the counties are requesting $250 million in the 2023-2024 fiscal year, with $100 million coming from American Rescue Plan funds designated for adult mental health programs.

In addition, the counties are calling for a $50 million increase in the mental health base and redirection of the remaining $100 million proposed by Governor Josh Shapiro for school mental health funding. While Shapiro had initially proposed investing $500 million from the state budget into enhancing mental health support in schools and allocating up to $60 million annually by 2027-28 to restore county mental health funding, Amie Allanson-Dundon, St. Luke’s Behavioral Health Director of Clinical Therapy Services and event moderator, expressed concerns about this allocation.

Allanson-Dundon emphasized the importance of community-based services, highlighting the potential gaps in care when school-based programs are no longer accessible to graduating students in need. She stressed the necessity of allocating resources to address these individuals’ ongoing mental health needs as they transition to adulthood.

The requested funds from the state are a modest infusion aimed at preventing the mental health crisis from spiraling further out of control. To fully support community mental health systems, an additional investment of over $1 billion is needed, according to the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

Efforts have been made at the state level to secure more funding and tackle the mental health crisis. The establishment of the Behavioral Health Commission on Adult Mental Health, composed of behavioral health experts, advocates, providers, and legislators, was a significant step taken by the state General Assembly as part of the 2022-23 state budget. Furthermore, legislation championed by Representative Mike Schlossberg that would allocate $100 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to address mental health needs in the state passed in the House of Representatives. However, it has since stalled in budget discussions in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

With the mental health system in Pennsylvania on the verge of collapse, it is clear that immediate action is necessary. The call for increased funding and resources has become more urgent than ever as the state and its counties grapple with the mental health crisis affecting countless residents. It is crucial for policymakers to put aside partisan differences and prioritize the mental well-being of Pennsylvania’s communities.

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