Dayton proposes $35M increase in mental health support

Gov. Mark Dayton
Gov. Mark Dayton's plan received enthusiastic praise from the Mental Health Legislative Network, a coalition of 35 advocacy groups.
Alex Kolyer / For MPR News 2014

Gov. Mark Dayton is calling for a $35 million boost in funding for mental health services throughout the state — a plan mental health advocacy groups are applauding.

The two-year budget proposal Dayton unveiled this week included a list of several improvements, ranging from crisis intervention to residential treatment.

State Department of Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson held a series of roundtable discussions around the state last year to learn about the need for mental health services. She found that system is in a fragile condition, particularly in rural areas.

"There are parts of our state where people are having to drive an hour, an hour and a half, just to see a mental health provider," Jesson said. "That's not the sort of access people need, especially when they're in crisis."

In broad terms, Dayton's two-year proposal pumps new money into prevention and early intervention programs, improves access to treatment and expands community support for recovery.

The plan received quick and enthusiastic praise from the Mental Health Legislative Network, a coalition of 35 advocacy groups.

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"This is a very good package, really building on what we have and just making it more accessible," said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Abderholden said the state's mental health system was broken 13 years ago, but has slowly improved. She said Dayton's plan would build on a foundation now in place.

The proposed investment in crisis services is especially significant, Abderholden said, and will have a huge impact.

"If we can help people when they are beginning to have symptoms, before it goes into a full blown crisis, getting them stabilized in their homes, we will save millions of dollars in terms of emergency rooms, hospitals and even jails," she said.

The governor's plan would establish a single statewide emergency phone number for crisis services available 24 hours a day. It creates a new psychiatric residential program for children, with beds available throughout the state and expands the number of community treatment teams.

Funding would be increased for adult housing services, community mental health centers and family care. The plan also includes a study of state payment rates to mental health care providers.

State Sen. Tony Lourey, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Division, said investments in mental health services were hard to make in the past decade, as lawmakers resolved a series of budget deficits. But with a $1 billion surplus to work with, Lourey said he thinks the time is right for the Legislature to make improvements.

"This year we do have a little bit of breathing room, not a great deal," said Lourey, DFL-Kerrick. "But with a surplus and a structurally-balanced budget going forward, we're able to take a step back and think about some of those things that have prevented people from having access to the care."

One potential sore spot in the governor's plan is the proposed closing of a 16-bed psychiatric hospital for children in Willmar.

House and Senate committee hearings on the health and human services section of the governor's proposal continue next week. Lawmakers will begin shaping their own budget plans after the next state economic forecast is released in late February.

Republicans have criticized Dayton's overall budget plan as too big and lacking in meaningful reform.

State Rep. Matt Dean, chair of the House Health and Human Services Finance Committee, was reserving judgment on the mental health proposal until he learns more about it. But Dean said he has heard a few complaints.

"I think the overall focus and attention is good," said Dean, R-Dellwood. "The concern ... of course — how you implement — is always of greatest importance to the people receiving the health care. More so than a bureaucratic realignment is, 'how are people getting care and are they able to access care?'"