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Plan to spend $100M in pandemic aid for mental health expansion passes in Pa. House


Plan to spend $100M in pandemic aid for mental health expansion passes in Pa. House

Jun 07, 2023 | 5:13 pm ET
By Peter Hall
Plan to spend $100M in pandemic aid for mental health expansion passes in Pa. House
State Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh (L) and Gov. Tom Wolf, (R) discuss the findings of a statewide suicide task force (Screen Capture)

Nearly a year after Pennsylvania set aside $100 million in pandemic-era federal aid to stem a mental health crisis and reinforce its treatment resources, the state House approved a plan on Wednesday to spend it.

The legislation, based on the recommendations of a commission empaneled last year to study the state’s mental health priorities, House Bill 849 passed with a bipartisan 173-30 vote.

If it is approved by the state Senate and incorporated into next year’s budget, it would split the money into three streams to train and retain behavioral health professionals, provide criminal justice agencies with mental health resources and award grants to county mental health agencies and providers.

Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, who is the bill’s prime sponsor, urged support for the plan on the House floor, citing numbers he described as stark.

One in five people will suffer some form of mental illness but fewer than half will receive treatment and suicide rates have increased by more than one-third in the last two decades, Schlossberg said.

“This legislation will improve lives. It will save lives,” he said. “It will do so across the commonwealth helping children and adults in our deepest pockets of rural and urban poverty, our most affluent communities and everywhere in between.”

Schlossberg, who has spoken openly about his own struggles with mental illness, described the money, which must be allocated by next year, and exhausted by 2026, as “drop in the bucket” compared to the needs of Pennsylvania residents. 

He added that the bill allocating the American Rescue Plan aid is only one piece of mental health legislation House lawmakers hope to pass before the June 30 budget deadline. 

Bills are pending action in the House that would establish a permanent funding source for the state’s 988 mental health crisis hotline and allocate another $100 million for mental health resources in schools, Schlossberg said.

The bill passed Wednesday would allocate $34 million for workforce development in the form of grants for behavioral health employers to recruit, train and retain workers; grants for students to take internships, residencies and other work experience; and student loan forgiveness for behavioral health graduates who work for correctional or public mental health agencies. 

It would provide $31.5 million in grants through the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency for criminal justice agencies to obtain training and resources. 

The legislation would also provide $34.5 million to ensure the stability of and expansion of mental health services such as walk-in crisis centers, mobile crisis response teams, crisis stabilization centers and to establish mental health and substance abuse services.

Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-York, spoke critically of the plan, saying that because it is structured to provide the funds as competitive grants, agencies and providers without the resources to prepare proposals and submit applications will be at a disadvantage.

“Unfortunately, it sets the counties up pitted against each other and too much will be eaten up by bureaucracy and won’t go through to needs that we truly have in our county,” Keefer said.

House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said Republican lawmakers should approve the plan because it builds on the chamber’s accomplishments in the area of mental health in the previous session, when the GOP was in control.

“We’ve been able to arrive at a bipartisan solution that starts to tackle some of the issues of mental health, gun violence, trauma-informed care, and caring for those individuals that are directly impacted,” Cutler said.

Human Services Committee Chairperson Stephen Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, praised Republican leaders for supporting the bill.

“This mental health crisis is not a Philadelphia-area thing. It’s not isolated. It’s all across the commonwealth,” Kinsey said. “So, to see so many members come together to understand the importance of this bill, and support it … that’s kudos to the members understanding it.”