TRANSFORMING HEALTH — Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed $43.7 billion budget includes money to improve behavioral health services and train more health care workers.
Wolf wants to create a $200 million scholarship program for state system and community college students who want to work in health care and other in-demand sectors. They would have to agree to staying in Pennsylvania after graduating.
Heather Tyler at the Hospital and Health System Association of Pennsylvania said the scholarships would help address a historic nurse staffing shortage by training people who otherwise might not be able to afford nursing school or want to take on costly student loans.
“There was a workforce shortage in the health care space before the pandemic, and now it’s a crisis,” Tyler said. “This proposal won’t solve it, but every step in the right direction is so important that we’re grateful for it.”
Tyler also applauded a proposed more-than $100 million toward behavioral health and substance abuse treatment providers and county mental health programs.
That funding would quickly translate to more people with serious mental health needs getting services, said Annie Strite, mental health and intellectual disabilities coordinator for Cumberland and Perry counties. Strite said demand for services is up 15% from last year in her region.
Annual funding for county mental health programs has not increased in more than a decade, Strite noted. However, this year, with an estimated $6.5 billion budget surplus and with the pandemic raising awareness of mental health issues, she said she’s optimistic.
“If ever there’s a time when our policymakers are listening, I think it’s now,” Strite said.
The budget includes an increase of around $6 billion over the current fiscal year. In his annual budget address Tuesday, Wolf touted a budget surplus from higher-than-forecast tax collections and money from the federal government during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wolf has proposed increases in spending on education every year he’s been in office, and his latest proposal calls for $1.25 billion for K-12 schools and $200 million for special education programs.
Republicans have pushed back, calling the spending unsustainable, and say the state will have a $1 billion budget deficit by next year if spending isn’t limited.
House Republican spokesman Jason Gottesman said the proposed budget would increase annual spending by nearly 20%, a steep increase that “overshadows any specific proposal.”
“It is our caucus’s goal to ensure we continue the same prudent budgeting practices that have developed today’s surpluses while still making targeted investments in key areas of Pennsylvania,” said Republican House spokesman Jason Gottesman.
Gottesman said the House Appropriations Committee would vet these spending items and others “as the first real step toward developing a final budget plan.”