New York’s mental health workforce “on life support,” asks state to release funds

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NEW YORK NOW – The mental health care workforce in New York has waited for years to receive more funding from the state, and organizations that represent those workers say the coming state budget should be the avenue to make good on that promise.

Those organizations are calling on the Hochul administration to propose a 5.4% cost of living adjustment in funding for that workforce, plus an additional $500 million, in next year’s budget.

Glenn Liebman from the Mental Health Association (Right), Harvey Rosenthal from NYSAPRS (Middle), Matt Shapiro from NAMI-NewYork State (Background) Credit: New York NOW

At a public hearing in Albany Tuesday, representatives from those groups said the amount of funding currently set aside by the state for the mental health care workforce isn’t enough to sustain the industry, which has faced higher demand during the pandemic.

Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association, said that, with that funding, lives could be saved through a more robust response from the state.

“We’ve lost too many lives of people with mental health and addiction disorders over the last several decades,” Liebman said. “This funding will help ensure that tomorrow, and in the future, the lives of these individuals will be met with respect, support, and recovery.’

But what Liebman and other advocates asked for on Tuesday wasn’t out of the blue.

When former Gov. George Pataki and the state Legislature approved the state budget in 2006, they built in a statutory requirement that was supposed to provide bumps in state funding each year for the human services workforce based on inflation.

Since then, the state has largely chosen to defer that law. In the 15 years since it was enacted, a cost of living adjustment, or COLA, has only been honored three times.

Because that funding has failed to come through for so many years, the mental health care workforce has been plagued by low wages, which has led to turnover and a constant influx of workers with less experience in the field.

That’s affected care, according to Harvey Rosenthal, the CEO of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services.

“We’re at a breaking point,” Rosenthal said. “We’re on life support, and we need to be resuscitated.”

The 5.4% cost of living adjustment sought by the organizations would be a culmination of the rate hikes deferred over the last decade, while the $500 million represents the funding those groups would have received had those increases happened as scheduled.

Assemblymember Aileen Gunther, a Democrat who chairs the mental health committee, said she would support more resources for mental health care in New York, saying the demand should match the state’s commitment to those services.

“I think we failed our mental health community in the last few years, in many ways, I really do,” Gunther said. “We have so much more work to do.”

The Hochul administration, last month, did announce $21 million in federal funding to bolster the state’s mental health care workforce, and another $4 million for peer services.

When asked Tuesday by Gunther if the administration would support a 5.4% cost of living adjustment for the state’s mental health care workforce, a representative for the state Office of Mental Health didn’t offer a position, and said it would be worked out in next year’s state budget.

“We look forward to having those discussions and working with our partners in the Legislature to, as we have in the past, be part of the discussions and negotiations in next year’s state budget on this COLA,” said Moira Tashjian, the agency’s executive deputy commissioner.

New York’s fiscal position is better than anticipated leading into next year, with $4 billion more in revenue than the state anticipated when the budget was approved last April.

Hochul will present her first state budget proposal in January, kicking off three months of negotiations with the Legislature before the spending plan is due at the end of March.