Mental health funding likely to increase

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(Host) An independent review has concluded that Vermont’s community mental health system is one of the best in the country. The study was requested by the state earlier this year in the midst of a debate over the mental health system’s budget. State officials and mental health providers say they’ll use the report’s conclusions to find a way to fund the system at a more predictable and sustainable level.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) Community mental health providers have argued that they’re doing a good job, but the costs and the demand for services have outstripped funding for mental health agencies. Earlier this year providers and their supporters demonstrated at the Statehouse, saying the problem had reached a crisis point. They claimed workers were woefully underpaid and that some services were in danger of being shut down. The new report supports their claims.

The study the Pacific Health Policy Group found that by many measures Vermont is a national leader in delivering mental health services. The system serves 30,000 Vermonters at a cost of more than $215 million.

(Ken Libertoff) “I would call it a true landmark study because its been many years since we had an objective viewpoint that analyses the efficiency of the system in terms of finances and productiveness in terms of best practices and clinical work.”

(Zind) Ken Libertoff is the executive director of the Vermont Association for Mental Health. Libertoff says providers feel vindicated by the study. While it gives the community health providers high marks, the report says the system is at a crossroads when it comes to funding. The report also backs up what state officials have been saying: that declining federal Medicaid money and modest increases in state revenues have made it difficult to fund the mental health system.

Agency of Human Services Secretary Charles Smith agrees that the report is generally positive. Smith says the study does point to some inconsistencies that need to be addressed in the cost and delivery of services among the states different community mental health agencies. But he says the state is prepared to address the budget problems.

One recommendation is to put the community mental health budget on a three-year instead of a one-year cycle. Smith says the plan wouldn’t result in a dramatic increase in funding but it would give agencies the ability to plan ahead.

(Smith) “Not necessarily greater budget increases, but my intent and hope would be predictable increases that are acceptable from the standpoint of being sure that the system is financially sustained.”

(Zind) Smith says the administration would consider increasing funding for the mental health agencies by 7.5 percent annually as part of a three-year budget. That falls within the range that Ken Libertoff says would be acceptable to community mental health providers.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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