Mental health funding has an uncertain future


RICHMOND Mentally disabled citizens and their advocates showed up in droves Monday to speak at the General Assemblys hearing for the 2008-2010 budget.

More than 163 speakers asked the General Assembly to increase funding for Virginias mentally disabled, specifically in the form of Medicaid waivers for the mentally retarded. MR waivers would help defer the costs of caring for mentally disabled and special-needs family members.

Were hurting. We have real issues. And we need your help right now, a mother of a mentally disabled child said at the hearing.

Gov. Tim Kaines 2008-2010 budget proposal would increase the number of slots for MR waivers by 150.

Advocates for the disabled said the biennial increase in funding MR waivers is not enough. One of the issues speakers addressed was that almost 4,000 people are on the list of urgent cases and waiting to receive a waiver. To clear the list of urgent cases, advocates say the number of MR waiver slots will have to be increased to 750 during the next five years.   Preliminary discussions indicate increased spending in these areas, said Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee Delegate Lacey E. Putney, I-Bedford.

Kaine proposes $41.6 million to expand mental health care services in the commonwealth during the next two years, allocating $7.2 million to MR waivers. Putney said a statewide economic recession could cause funding problems in many areas.

Certain areas of revenue are not coming in as projected, Putney said.

Putney said part of the problem is a decrease in holiday spending this past year. This led to less state revenue acquired through sales taxes.  Because of a tight budget, he says that MR waivers and other types of help for the mentally disabled are not the only areas that might be shortchanged in the next two years.

As we proceed through the budget-making process, we will be reducing a number of the governors initiatives, Putney said.

Kaine proposed taking $200 million from the stabilization or rainy-day fund to pay for some of his initiatives. Among these are transportation and pre-kindergarten programs. Putney says many Appropriations Committee members do not favor the governors proposals.

We must exercise caution and restraint in light of the reduced revenue, Putney said.

Out of all 50 states, Virginia ranks No. 47 in providing funding for people with mental disabilities, advocates said. In 2006, the National Alliance on Mental Illness rated Virginias mental health programs a D.

Some hearing speakers and Kaine cited the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech as a wake-up call for the urgent need to increase funding for mental health programs.

Theres been a great deal of publicity about devoting more resources to treating mental illness. The tragedy at Virginia Tech last spring was terrible, said Stewart Wolfe, father of a mentally disabled child who spoke at the budget hearing.

He acknowledges there is a difference between the mentally disabled, like his daughter, and the mentally ill, like Virginia Tech gunman Seung-Hui Cho.

I can just about guarantee that the people I speak for would never do something like that. Does that mean theyre any less deserving of our support? Wolfe said.

Virginia Tech student Nick Hughes said better mental health care is not a guarantee that similar incidents wont happen in the future.

A better health care system might decrease things like this, but at the same time, theres no way of knowing when these things will happen, Hughes said.

More money put back into the economy would increase state revenue and is the most important factor to focus on in this sessions budget, Hughes said.