Mental-health funding urged

By Ret Boney

Hundreds of thousands of people across North Carolina are affected by mental illness, developmental disabilities or addictive diseases, and many of them are not receiving the services they need, advocates say.

With a state budget surplus estimated to be as high as $2.4 billion this year, and with public awareness of current funding inadequacies reaching new highs, they say now is the time to act.

“Over the past year, the need is more clearly expressed and more clearly seen by the public than ever before,” says Jill Hinton Keel, chair of Coalition 2001, a group representing almost 50 statewide nonprofits that represent hundreds of thousands of individuals.

“Our time is now and there are no excuses this year,” she says.

The group is asking state lawmakers to provide an additional $190 million a year to provide more direct services at the community level, and a one-time appropriation of $55.5 million, primarily for housing for targeted populations, says Hinton Keel.

And while the members of the coalition praise the budgets proposed by both Gov. Mike Easley and the legislative oversight committee of the General Assembly, they are asking for a greater investment.

Those additional dollars primarily are to provide services at the local level to more people in need, and to draw down available federal matching dollars for more community-level services, Hinton Keel says.

“It would allow us to build capacity in the local communities,” she says. “People could access services they need in their own communities and wouldn’t have to go away from their homes.”

The bulk of the new funding would be directed toward individuals through the local agencies and nonprofits that provide them with services.

Mental-health needs have begun to resonate with lawmakers and the public, says John Tote, executive director of the Mental Health Association in North Carolina, a service provider and education and advocacy group based in Raleigh.

While funding for mental health was not a priority in the past, he says, that has changed.

“A majority of the folks that walk into mental-health centers are middle class or upper-middle class,” he says.  “They are the working poor, or people whose mental health benefits have run out.”

He estimates that more than 800,000 North Carolinians live with persistent mental illness that is moderate to severe, and says more than half of them are not receiving the services they need.

A deeper understanding of that unmet need has begun to resonate with lawmakers as well, Tote says, and he expects that to translate into significant funding for mental health in the legislative session that began this month.

Hinton Keel expected a bill containing many of the coalition’s recommendations to be introduced in the state legislature the week of May 15.

The coalition also is planning a rally for June 6 at the Legislative Building in Raleigh to be attended by consumers, families and advocates for mental health, developmental disabilities and substance abuse.

The coalition was formed in 1991 with the goal of substantially increasing funding of mental health, developmental disabilities and substance abuse services by 2001.

They did not reach that goal within 10 years, but the fight continues, says Hinton Keel, and advocates and families hope this year will be different.

“The positive thing is that everyone has a commitment and the same goal in mind,” she says.  “We’ll be very disappointed if it doesn’t happen.”

Tote agrees, even though there are other budget priorities for lawmakers to consider.

“We would like to see what we consider an equitable share of that coming our way,” he says of the budget surplus.  “They can’t put us off anymore.”

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