Mental health advocates rally for increased funding

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(Host) Hundreds of mental health care recipients, workers and advocates rallied at the Statehouse on Tuesday. They warned that the state’s system of community mental health centers is on the verge of an unprecedented breakdown unless there’s an increase in state funding.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Crowd chanting) “Saving now might seem okay, mental illness won’t go away! Pay up!”

(Zind) Demonstrators heard from a mental health worker with a Master’s degree who earns $28,000 a year, a woman who says without the help of community mental health services her children would be in the custody of the state, and a succession of lawmakers. All called for more money for Vermont’s mental health workers.

Todd Centybear is director of the Howard Center for Human Services in Burlington. He says after years of underfunding the mental health system has reached a critical point.

(Centybear) “Based upon the average that we’ve gotten for the last eight years, we’ll be bankrupt by FY ’06. Organizations, particularly the smaller ones, will begin to go out of business and obviously we cannot afford to let that happen.”

(Zind) The central issue is pay for mental health workers. Centybear says the Howard Center has more than 30 openings it can’t fill because no one wants to work for the salaries it can pay.

(Crowd chanting) “Five percent! Five percent! Five percent!”

(Zind) Advocates are calling for a five percent salary hike in the state budget. Centybear says it will take that much just to keep the system afloat.

(Centybear) “It will buy time. It will buy a year where the administration and hopefully other people can really look at, how do you fund a system of care. We really need to look at what do we need to do, what can we afford and establish a business plan that gets us there together.”

(Zind) Advocates and the administration agree that after factoring in the costs of increased case loads, loss of some federal funds and other expenses, the governor’s budget leaves only enough for a one percent increase in salaries.

Centybear says the administration has been unresponsive to the situation. But the governor says he is concerned. He says he has increased funding for mental health services in each of his budgets.

(Douglas) “It’s a $12.4 million increase over two years, an average of more than 10 percent for each of the last two years. We’re now fifth highest in the nation in terms of per capita spending for mental health.”

(Zind) Douglas says improvements to the mental health care system will have to come incrementally.

(Douglas) “They say, ‘We’ve had multiple meetings and you don’t listen, you don’t understand.’ Well, yes I do, but I’m meeting with everybody and trying to work these things through. We need to work together to meet their needs and the needs of their constituency within the bounds of fiscal reality.”

(Zind) The governor says he wants to work with mental health providers to find ways to change the system to make it financially sustainable.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in Montpelier.

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