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No Diversion of Mental Health Money

A Senate budget subcommittee last week rejected a plan to divert roughly $34 million a year for mental health services to a CalWORKs (California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids) fund.

The California Department of Finance wanted to redistribute realignment money so half the funds currently going to mental health services would instead be shared equally between mental health and CalWORKs starting in 2015-16.

“The realignment funds going into the CalWORKs maintenance of effort subaccount are capped at $1.1 billion, at which point any additional funds, or growth over that amount, are routed to the mental health subaccount,” said Judy Bowman from the Department of Finance, at last week’s Senate Budget Subcommittee for Health and Human Services hearing. “This … would adjust that structure so that those growth funds … would instead be split evenly between the mental health subaccount and the CalWORKs maintenance of effort subaccount.”

The administration felt the new arrangement would mitigate risks while still delivering dollars to the mental health subaccount, Bowman said.

That didn’t make much sense to Sen. Bill Monning (D-Monterey), chair of the budget subcommittee.

“It is going to be our recommendation today to reject this item, as it diverts funds from county mental health programs,” Monning said. “Additionally, this program would not go into effect until 2015-16, and there’s no reason why action would need to be taken now.”

The $34 million estimate is based on what mental health agencies would have lost in funding in the current year, even though the shift in funding would not have started till the 2015-16 fiscal year. The realignment fund’s growth allocation can change from year to year, so no one knows exactly what the amount would have been starting in 2015.

Farrah McDaid Ting, associate legal representative for the California State Association of Counties, said it’s premature to revisit the division of this fund, since a deal was only recently worked out.

“The ink is hardly dry on the 2011 realignment superstructure,” McDaid Ting said. “So to propose a change just a few years hence is really disturbing to us. We worked really hard on that agreement to get something fair in place.”

Rusty Selix, executive director of the California Council of Community Mental Health Agencies, said the state has made cut after cut to mental health programs over the last several years.

“The loss to mental health is in the billions of dollars. Hundreds of millions of dollars every year below what was expected,” Selix said. Mental health advocates say mental health underfunding has not eased much since California voters passed Prop. 63 in 2004, also known as the Mental Health Services Act.

“When we wrote Prop. 63, we were saying that money would go to expanding mental health services,” Selix said. “When, in fact, most of that money has gone to make up this loss from the diversion of mental health services. … We hope [the Department of] Finance doesn’t even think of doing anything like this for a long time.”

The cuts to mental health are not the only strain on the mental health system in California, according to Susan Rajlal, legislative analyst for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health:

“The transfer of Healthy Families children to Medi-Cal managed care has had an unintended consequence for us in Los Angeles County,” Rajlal said. “We now have 6,000 children in the process of being transferred to Los Angeles County for services,” because that county is a Medi-Cal managed care entity for specialty mental health services.

“We lack the funding to support the children we’re already seeing,” she said. “So it’s important to realize that the demands for services are greatly increasing.”

The Senate subcommittee unanimously rejected the proposal on a 3-0 vote.

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