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How to promote the value of human service programs

April 12, 2017
by Sara M. Howe and Randy Wells
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We’ve all heard this question before: “When government starts to cut budgets why do they always start with human service programs?”

Human service programs need money to serve a population that desperately requires mental health care and/or substance abuse treatment. That money comes, overwhelmingly, from state government’s budgets—budgets that are often stretched to meet competing demands. For instance, in Illinois in fiscal year 2014, 39.7% of Illinois’ General Revenue Funds were spent on human services or healthcare.

Human services programs need a better defense: namely, offense.

We who work in the field of human services often do a poor job of promoting what we bring to the table in terms of contributing to the state and our communities beyond services delivered to our clients. And, too often, we bear the brunt of criticism from anti-tax groups and public officials when the discussion turns to tax increases to pay bills for properly funding essential human services.

Too often the business community leads the charge. They oppose tax increases and promote budget cuts that undermine providers. We hear routinely that human service providers are “tax eaters,” “negative balance lines in state budgets,” and a, “black hole,” of taxes.

Enough already.

Look at reality

Let’s look at the reality. Examine what human service providers bring to the table for the state and in local communities and what we should be highlighting to policy makers, anti-tax groups and the business community.

1. We provide many of the services we do because, in the past, policymakers determined it was more cost effective to contract with the private sector than to have those services delivered by the government. And we have proven that fact. We deliver services more efficiently than government can, which means we save tax payers’ money.

2. Not only do we deliver services more efficiently, we have proven that we can deliver better and more human-centered, community-focused care than government institutions.

3. Without our work, the alternative is for individuals struggling with behavioral health or medical issues to turn to the most expensive treatment options, such as hospital emergency rooms. Or, worse, they end up in correctional systems because of untreated mental health or substance use disorders, costing taxpayers a king’s ransom over the cost of services delivered by community providers.

Ask your business friends: what is the best business model: emergency room care and institutional correctional system, or community care providers?

4. We employ thousands in our field. They pay income taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, etc. They eat in local restaurants and shop at local retailers. They buy homes in their communities. They purchase vehicles from local dealers and purchase everything from oil changes to haircuts. Cuts to human services are blows to local businesses.

Private sector

Public officials love to talk about promoting job growth and endorse the claim that the private sector can do things better. So, when they say they can’t support a tax increase but support cuts to human services, ask them if they prefer job growth in the private sector or layoffs in their districts?

If you are a member of a business group that opposes increasing taxes to fund vital government health services, consider sending them a message that you, like other businesses, contribute to the local economy. Tell them that their opposition harms you and other service providers. 

In fact, in Illinois, the total annual economic impact of human service providers to the state’s economy is $4.5 billion per year, according to the Illinois Partners for Human Services Economic Impact Study 2016.

And finally, speak to business leaders and public officials and ask them if is it business-friendly to force layoffs, reduce or eliminate consumer consumption of local goods and services, and shrink state and municipal taxes paid? 

How do we counter claims that seek to undervalue human services?

First of all, let’s start by acknowledging a few facts:

  • Caring for humans is expensive. Humans eat. They need a place to sleep. They need medical care from time-to-time. That doesn’t come cheap. 
  • Caring for humans requires other humans to provide that care. Our industry is not “automated services” but “human services.” That means we pay humans for their work, and their work costs money.
  • Too often in the past, some in our field have been prone to cry wolf when rate increases fail to materialize or funders implement new reporting or grant requirements. It has not helped when some seem to annually proclaim they are going out of business without more money only to remain in business and make the same statements year after year.

We need not apologize for what it costs to deliver our services. And we do need to call out public officials when they say they value human services but then rob our budgets.

Sara M. Howe, is CEO of the Illinois Association for Behavioral Health, Randy Wells is the vice president for mental health policy.

This blog was contributed courtesy of the National Council for Behavioral Health.