New legislation to provide state support for mental health crisis

Ryan Keith | 2/20/2019, 4:09 p.m.
The Illinois Coalition for Better Mental Health Care is teaming with state Rep. Deb Conroy and state Sen. Heather Steans ...

The Illinois Coalition for Better Mental Health Care is teaming with state Rep. Deb Conroy and state Sen. Heather Steans in an announcing their push for mental health funding and reform.

Mental health problems are pervasive in Illinois. More than 2.5 million Illinoisans, including an estimated 850,000 young people under age 25, struggle with some form of mental health condition, from mild to severe. And far too many – the majority of Illinoisans with mental health issues – who need treatment are forced to go without.

That could start to change, under new legislation being pushed forward at the state Capitol by the Illinois Coalition for Better Mental Health Care.

House Bill 2486 and Senate Bill 1763, filed by state Rep. Deb Conroy and state Sen. Heather Steans, would steadily increase state investment in mental health treatment over the next four years, by $50 million. It would also change how the state regulates and funds mental health providers, to ensure they have the ability to innovate to meet patients’ needs and to reward those who produce good health outcomes.

The vast majority of new state funding would come through the state’s Medicaid program, drawing at least a 50 percent match in federal dollars. That would limit the state’s out-of-pocket cost to no more than $13 million a year over the four years, above what is spent now on mental health treatment.

Advocates and lawmakers pushing for the new focus on mental health treatment funding and oversight say the legislation is long overdue. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates Illinois’ investment in mental health treatment ranks the state 38^th nationally, with devastating results. The two-year budget impasse under former Gov. Bruce Rauner plunged the state’s mental health system into crisis.

People in a mental health crisis face law enforcement and jails, instead of mental health professionals and treatment settings. Children with acute mental health needs languish in hospitals far beyond what their medical treatment requires, while they wait for a place to go for mental health care. More and more people commit suicide while their issues go untreated: suicide rates in Illinois soared by 23 percent between 1999 and 2016, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

They note this legislation is an important first step after years of struggles in policymaking, and are encouraged by new Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s statements in support of addressing mental health resources as a priority in his administration.

Along with growing administrative costs that are limiting resources for behavioral health providers to provide care, a shortage of behavioral health first responders and treatment professionals is plaguing Illinois. Illinois has the nation’s sixth-highest mental health professional shortage, and 85 of Illinois’ 102 counties are designated as Health Professional Shortage Areas for Mental Health Services by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). Low salaries and reimbursement levels have prompted college and medical school students to avoid behavioral health professionals altogether.

During the last four years, 86 percent of community mental health providers in Illinois were forced to reduce or eliminate psychiatric services as a result of budget cuts; 46 percent of community-based mental health organizations either cut services or shut down programs.