Mental health care funding dodges cuts in Texas’ 85th legislative session

Texas’ 85th legislative session will not make cuts to mental health care funding—despite having to make cuts in other areas.

Gov. Greg Abbott and state leadership have asked state agencies to scale back funding requests by 4 percent in the 85th legislative session because of anticipated budget deficits related to the drop in the price of oil, said Annalee Gulley, director of public policy and government affairs for Mental Health America of Greater Houston.

“Exemptions to this cut have been granted for certain priority areas– including public education, border security, Child Protective Services and mental health resources,” she said.Mental health care funding dodges cuts in Texas’ 85th legislative session

Mental health challenges

Before the 84th session ended in 2015, the Texas Legislature passed a budget that increased mental health funds by $298 million. Yet, Gulley said Texas still ranks among the lowest funded states in the country.

“While we’ve seen funding increases for mental and behavioral health services during the past two legislative sessions, the allocated resources were simply not sufficient to compensate for the historic underfunding of state-provided mental-  and behavioral-health services, especially when coupled with Texas’ rapid population growth,” Gulley said.

Long waitlists for hospital beds in psychiatric care facilities are putting an increasing burden on criminal justice facilities, she said. The dilapidated state of most of the publicly funded psychiatric hospitals is attributed to the amount of per capita spending on mental health services.

“We are definitely seeing the detrimental effects of Texas’ per capita spending in Houston,” Gulley said.

In 2015, almost 90,000 individuals with serious mental illness had no public or private health insurance and were exclusively dependent on the public mental health service system for treatment, Gulley said.

The Harris Center, which is Harris County’s local mental health service center, is only able to treat between 11,000 and 12,000 patients per month, Gulley said.

She said the Harris County Jail is often referred to as the largest mental institution in the state of Texas.

“At this point I don’t see our overall approach from the state on down is comprehensive enough,” Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman said.

Hickman said during the 83rd Legislature, it was estimated that about one-quarter of the inmates were receiving psychotropic drugs in the jail. Three years later, he said the average number has risen by at least 100 inmates per day.

The number of violent acts by those claiming mental health issues seems to be rising as well, he said.

“I’m told the actual number of mental health beds at the state level has not increased in the last 10 years, and the number of forensic beds—those necessary for competency restoration—is down significantly due to closure of approximately 500 beds at one of the state hospitals,” he said.

Legislative solutions

Gulley said improvements after the last legislative session can be attributed in part to the 2015 formation of the House Select Committee on Mental Health.

“Since its formation, the Select Committee on Mental Health has heard testimony addressing adolescent mental health, crisis intervention, access to care, the criminal justice system, health insurance coverage, veterans and homelessness, among others,” she said.

The funding provided by the 84th Legislature allowed the Harris Center for Mental Health to maintain operations without a wait list, which has not happened since before the 2013 Legislative Session, Gulley said.

Senate Bills 239 and 55 passed in the 84th session provided millions of dollars for mental health in the
past year as well. SB 239 provides $5 million in tuition repayment assistance for mental health professionals. SB 55 coordinates private and public funding to create a grant program for veterans.

House Bill 197 was also passed in the last session. It requires public institutions of higher education to post mental health resources on the institution’s website.

The crux of that bill was to make all of the local resources available in one place on educational facilities’ websites, said Jed Young, executive director of communications at Lone Star College System.

Young said the LSCS mental health web page lists on-campus resources available to students, and off-campus mental health resources are organized by campus.

Gulley said MHA of Greater Houston is working closely with other organizations to align the new legislative platform to ensure a broad base of support for critical issues that include behavioral health workforce development, school behavioral health and perinatal mental health.

She said while prevention is the most cost-efficient tool to ensure the health of an individual, Medicaid expansion is the top goal for mental health care funds approved after the next legislative session.

“While we are encouraged state leaders have prioritized funding for mental health resources, we anticipate a tough road ahead for all funding requests in the 85th Legislature,” Gulley said.