While Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden has a long track record that community behavioral healthcare leaders can assess, getting a sense of where his Republican rival stands is not as easy.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has been in office only 20 months. She has mentioned in campaign appearances that as the mother of a newborn with Down’s syndrome, she intends to work on issues facing families of children with special needs. However, behavioral healthcare has not been a focus of her administration.
“I think she is really focused on ethics, corruption, and a gas pipeline, so this really hasn’t been a priority of hers yet,” says Jeanette Grasto, president of NAMI–Alaska.
While mayor of Wasilla, Palin attracted $500,000 in federal funding for a community mental health center, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group. And as governor, Palin did establish a new advisory board for the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, with a focus on consumers. At least 7 of the 11 board seats will be held by people who have used the state’s mental health services.
Mental health issues are a big concern in Alaska, which consistently has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation, partially due to cultural breakdowns in the Alaska Native community. “Plus it can just be a harsh place to live,” Grasto adds.
The administration of Gov. Frank Murkowski, Palin’s predecessor, “really slashed spending for health and social services, so our community mental health centers are having a hard time,” Grasto notes. She gives Palin high marks for trying to restore funding for programs that earlier administrations had eliminated.
“She supported housing and suicide prevention money that the legislature chose not to fund,” Grasto explains. For the budget year that began July 1, Palin had sought to increase behavioral health spending by $23 million, including grant money and $6.8 million in Medicaid funds for outpatient providers, according to the
Anchorage Daily News. The legislature didn't support all of her requests, but Alaska lawmakers did end up increasing funding by $25 million. Palin largely followed the recommendations of the
Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, Grasto notes. (Besides providing direct funding for some programs, the trust makes annual budget recommendations to the governor and legislature concerning how much the state should spend in general funds to support mental health programs.)
Grasto says mental health groups in the state were so used to not getting much that they may have been too conservative in what they asked for. “If she hasn’t done it,” Grasto says, “it’s because we haven’t asked her to.”
David Raths is a freelance writer.