Gary M. Steck: Full funding for behavioral health should be a priority in Connecticut

Gary M. Steck has been the Chief Executive Officer of Waterbury-based Wellmore Behavioral Health since 1999 and serves as Board Chair of the Connecticut Community Providers Association.  He is a Connecticut licensed psychotherapist.

As legislators in Connecticut prepare to vote on the budget for the next two years, there should be little disagreement about the need to shore up our behavioral health services. Numbing tragedies last year in a movie theater in Colorado and Sandy Hook Elementary School had politicians on both sides of the aisle agreeing it was time to fix our depleted mental health system.

Now is the opportune time for our elected officials to put their words into action.

Gaps in behavioral health services have widened in recent years because states like Connecticut have slashed more than $4.3 billion from mental health budgets nationwide since 2009. 

Indeed, and while it appears counter-intuitive, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s proposed budget cut grant funds for critically needed community based mental health and substance abuse recovery treatment to zero. 

Most recently the Appropriations Committee acknowledged the importance of this care by voting to restore 75 percent of this funding, yet the remaining 25 percent cut remains a striking gap for a system that is already dramatically under-funded and overtaxed.  This 25 percent cut adds insult to injury in that there has been only a single 1 percent cost adjustment to community providers for the last five years.  The Governor’s budget has no cost of living increase for the next two years for community providers whereas a 3 percent cost-of-living allowance for most state employees is planned.  

Behavioral health disorders affect far more Connecticut residents than physical illness. In fact, behavioral health conditions in the U.S. are more prevalent than heart disease and cancer combined.

This year one in five adults in the United States will suffer from a mental illness alone.

When you understand this reality, these cuts seem cruel and even potentially destabilizing to a system that is being pushed to its limits. Cuts to behavioral health services can only magnify the stigma that mental illness still carries in our society. 

Despite massive public education in recent years that mental illness is in fact physiologically based and can be treated very successfully when people can both seek and access help, too often this persistent stigma of seeking help prevents people who need treatment from getting the care they need in a timely fashion.

The remaining budget cuts and the lack of a reasonable cost of living increase for a seven-year period will result in dramatically diminished access to outpatient counseling, medications and family support services.  Study after study continues to show community-based provider services to be far less expensive than those delivered by government employees, with no qualitative difference.  The Legislative Program Review and Investigations Committee documented in January, 2012, that state-run programs cost twice as much to take care of clients at the same level of need as a private provider. 

After years of shortsighted under-funding behavioral health services in Connecticut, restoring funds for these high-impact programs is a smart investment. Let’s not wait for the next crisis to resume talking about doing something to ensure behavioral health issues are a priority for our state and budget.

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