(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania lawmakers plan to spend $100 million on behavioral health, and a commission advised that the money go toward workforce development, service expansion, and criminal justice.
So says a report from the Behavioral Health Commission, established in 2022 by Act 54 to figure out how best to treat mental health issues, drug addiction, payment issues, and improving a health care pipeline for workers and for patients.
The $100 million in federal funds has already been allocated by the General Assembly, but the Legislature still needs to pass a bill on how to spend it. The report suggested giving counties and local groups broad leeway in how to spend the funds based on local judgment and suggested that “weight should be given to culturally responsive initiatives that further promote equity in historically underresourced communities.”
The recommendations included $39 million to expand treatment and services such as walk-in crisis centers and telehealth infrastructure, $37 million to recruit and retain health care workers, and $23.5 million for criminal justice and public safety improvements to better address behavioral health problems. Another $500,000 would be set aside for evaluation and accountability efforts to review how the $100 million was spent.
“There really is a sense of urgency particularly given the current situation of mental health in the commonwealth,” said Rep. Mike Schlossberg, D-Allentown, who served on the commission during a Senate Health and Human Services hearing to discuss the report. “I would frankly make the argument Pennsylvania has failed to adequately fund mental health across the board.”
Lawmakers emphasized that the funding is a start and more would be needed to make a commitment to behavioral health sustainable.
“We have a mental health crisis,” said Rep. Wendi Thomas, R-Richboro. “The $100 million isn’t going to solve all our problems … maybe if we can recognize mental health and start there, they won’t end up in crisis.”
Thomas described the recommendations as “trying to put a little dent in the system everywhere” to make concrete improvements.
“Our biggest issue was stigma. As I sit here today, I believe our biggest issue is access,” Thomas said. “We have a mental health crisis today, and it’s on us to take action to do something to help fix it.”
In addition to how to spend the $100 million, the commission also suggested “sustained increases” in county base funding for the behavioral health system.
“Additional sustained funding could prevent further erosion of the behavioral health landscape in Pennsylvania,” the report stated.
That funding could be crucial for underserved areas where competitive wages draw potential health care workers away.
“In some instances, fast food restaurants and other non-skilled labor positions can offer more competitive wages and better benefits for work that is less emotionally demanding,” the report noted. “Pennsylvanians need more professional behavioral health resources. The commission recommends that funding be targeted toward efforts to retain and recruit health-care professionals and support professional development within the workforce.”
A repeated concern during the hearing was spending the money wisely.
“We’ve thrown hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars at this issue,” said Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Greenville. “From my perspective, we have another $100 million – we need it to be effective. To continue to just toss money without seeing the errors of the past is not going to be effective and address the problem.”
Industry experts were happy to hear of how the money will be spent, but they warned of the work (and funding) required for the future.
“While one-time funding is certainly helpful, it’s not going to sustain a new program or initiative,” said Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association. “It’s a quick fix, it’s not a long-term solution.”