Make mental health a budget priority in NH

If ever there were a time for mental health organizations to pitch the need for more funding to state lawmakers, now would appear to be it.

So it made perfect sense that a Concord-based organization representing 10 community-based mental health centers chose Monday – the one-month anniversary of the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut – to issue a position paper detailing its budget priorities for the next two years.

That it also came a month before Gov. Maggie Hassan is expected to present her two-year budget for fiscal years 2014-15 didn’t hurt, either.

But whether the nation’s renewed focus on mental health issues in the wake of Sandy Hook will translate into a renewed commitment by cash-strapped state lawmakers to expand mental health services remains an open question.

“The last month has seen a horrific escalation of crises in mental health and the failings of our community-based system,” said Jay Couture, president of the New Hampshire Community Behavioral Health Association, in a prepared statement. “A month ago today, the shootings in Newtown, Conn., shocked our community and also raised the public’s concerns about mental health issues.”

In order to offset the damage done by the state’s inability to invest in mental health services in recent years, Couture put forward an ambitious plan that calls for spending $37.6 million over the next two years to fund 132 new treatment beds, Section 8 rental subsidies and more outpatient caregiver teams, among many other provisions.

Specifically, the plan calls for spending roughly:

• $10 million for 38-48 new beds spread among four regions of the state.

• $1.5 million for 20 new beds to treat individuals facing mental health and substance abuse problems.

• $900,000 for 12 new beds to care for those most in need of treatment and otherwise destined for hospital emergency rooms.

• $11.6 million to double to 12 the number of teams that provide outpatient services with the goal of keeping patients out of hospital emergency rooms and jails or prison.

• $1.8 million to offer a rental subsidy to those individuals on a waiting list for a Section 8 federal housing voucher.

Sadly, even lawmakers sympathetic to the problem may be powerless to do much over the next two years, given the state of the budget.

Speaking at the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce’s annual Economic Outlook Luncheon on Thursday, Charles Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, told Nashua business leaders that the state could be looking at a $25 million deficit in the two-year budget cycle that ends June 30.

If that weren’t bad enough, he projected it will cost more than $200 million over the next two years just to maintain the current level of services, while state revenues only will increase by about $10 million.

If true, lawmakers will have to be extremely diligent in setting budget priorities for 2014-15. When they do, some additional resources for mental health treatment should be near the top of the list.