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Advocates, allies, and legislators hold the line in Texas

July 8, 2011
by Dennis Grantham, Editor-in-Chief
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New consensus around community behavioral health value holds for third consecutive year

Austin, Texas – Despite the threat of cuts due to a gigantic deficit in the state’s biennial budget, behavioral health care providers and advocates in Texas, headed by the Texas Council of Community Centers, convinced legislators to sustain community behavioral health spending for the third budget cycle in a row.

“Over the last several years, we’ve seen a growing awareness by the legislature that our hospital emergency rooms, county jails, and prisons are full of people with mental and addiction disorders largely due to the lack of mental healthcare in our state,” said Lee Johnson, The Texas Council’s vice president. “The legislature deserves credit for investing in mental health over the past three sessions, recognizing that without it, people with serious mental illnesses will end up in these more costly settings at a much higher cost to taxpayers.”

During this budget debate, which ended with the passage of the budget in mid-June, Johnson says, “We were at incredible risk of losing ground on the investments made in the last two sessions. The fact that legislators protected those investments in this fiscal environment is pretty incredible.” For their part, the Texas Council and its allies—which included the Texas Association of Counties, the Texas Conference of Urban Counties, Texas Police Chiefs’ Association, Texas Sheriff’s Association, and the County Judges and Commissioners Association, offered plenty of facts to bolster wavering legislators.

A letter to Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst and members of the Texas Senate, signed by the six organizations, played a pivotal role. Johnson believes that the letter—and the broad alliance of support that it represented—bolstered an effort in the Texas Senate to rewrite the original House budget proposal, which included behavioral healthcare among a long list of sizable cuts. Ultimately, the Senate-authored budget gained support and won the day.

While advocates are grateful for the legislature’s support, Johnson is quick to acknowledge that the state has a long, long way to go. Dollar for dollar, Texas is “getting a great bang for the buck,” he says, “but if you compare per capita mental health funding across the 50 states, Texas is still down there—at the bottom.” And, he adds, “since 2000, our population has increased by more than 18 percent, so if you look at community mental health spending over time, relative to growth, you’ll see that it’s remained relatively flat.”

Nevertheless, “we’re grateful for the investments that are being made. We feel that legislators are recognizing the historic underfunding that has occurred for community mental health and have been working to address it.”

The Texas Council’s work won praise from providers among Texas 39 regional community health boards. “The Council did a superb job representing its membership at the Capitol,” says Don Polzin, CEO of Gulf Bend Center in Victoria, Tex. “This, coupled with the solid grassroots connections each center maintains in its communities, and crucial partnerships statewide helped to assure a common message was carried to lawmakers about the consequences of reductions in funding for these important services.”

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