Kids' mental health, opioid crisis get boost in Walz budget

Dept. of Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey
Department of Human Services Commissioner Tony Lourey answers questions from the media, alongside Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan in January 2019 after Lourey's appointment was announced in Hastings, Minn.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News file

Helping students do better in school, get punished less often and miss fewer days are all things the administration is hoping for — which is why Gov. Tim Walz is asking for more than $4 million a year for children's mental health care in his budget proposal.

One piece of that is to offer mental health care in school for as many as 7,500 more students through the state's "school-linked" mental health services.

"All too often, it takes over 10 years for people who have mental health needs to get in to get services," said Tony Lourey, commissioner of Minnesota Department of Human Services. "School-linked mental health [care] has been a really powerful tool that we've used for several years now. This will be a big piece."

The governor is also proposing the state provide money for children's residential treatment. The federal government stopped funding those facilities last year, which left the state scrambling.

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Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Finance and Policy Committee, said she likes the governor's priorities, but she's less sure about the amounts he wants to spend.

"It's going to be a question of scale," she said, "and not necessarily a disagreement over what should be done."

She said it's important to put emphasis on care for children because that helps both kids and their families, but the governor wants to put too much money into state-operated services.

"I don't consider that a high priority. If we're going to have limited funds, then I'm going to put it toward children — and not toward the established state-run system," Benson said.

The governor is calling for less grant funding for adult mental health care, but addressing the opioid crisis — and the many problems it has created — would get an extra $17 million over two years.

He also wants to expand the program of Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics, which are designed to be a kind of one-stop shop for mental health, substance use disorder and other needs. Minnesota is one of eight states that have been running pilot programs funded by the federal government, but that money is due to run out this summer and the governor wants to make sure the program here can continue.

The St. Paul-based Wilder Foundation operates one of the pilot sites. Pahoua Yang, who is responsible for mental health and wellness there, said the initial results are promising and the portion of the governor's budget plan for the program is one of the pieces she's most excited about.

"To have the ability to continue to refine the model and to continue to measure it and to continue to improve how we need to serve families and kids and adults in our states is definitely an opportunity I'm excited to do," she said. "Because I know that with a little more time, we will begin to see the outcomes we want."

Yang sees the clinics as a way to make sure that people get the mental health care they need — when they need it. She said she's already seeing that start to happen. But it always takes a while to get a new program up and running, and it's not uncommon for funding to run out while it's still too early to tell whether it's actually working.

Yang said she's also happy to see that the budget approaches the issue of mental health as a broad continuum of care.

"While it may feel like all of these are different bits and pieces, they're all toward the same outcome, which is that we want people to be better and to do better," she said. "We want high-quality services and we want accountability."

But it's the workforce — and not money — that may prove to be the biggest challenge to the governor's vision. Like other states, Minnesota has a shortage of mental health care workers at every level, so even if there's money allotted for counseling in schools or expanding the community mental health centers, the state will have to find ways to make sure there are enough people to actually deliver.