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Mental health cuts will be costly

By William S. Dinwiddie Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget would weaken the state’s social safety net in many ways. The harshest impact will be on people with mental illness.

By William S. Dinwiddie

Gov. Corbett's proposed budget would weaken the state's social safety net in many ways. The harshest impact will be on people with mental illness.

The governor proposes reducing funding for behavioral health services by almost $200 million. But the belief that this will save the state money is an illusion.

People will continue to receive services one way or another. Effective treatment and support will simply be replaced by more expensive emergency and institutional services — or other public services, such as prisons.

The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania has advised Corbett of the dire consequences of such cuts, noting the state's counties "will not sustain another reduction without significant service reductions, likely resulting in increased costs for corrections and hospitals, and impacting the overall safety of our communities."

Over the last two decades, Pennsylvania has emerged as a national leader in mental-health services. This is because well-informed leaders pursued and adopted policies supported by research. Government officials, mental-health experts, and researchers from around the world have come to see what the state has accomplished.

Effective state policies have led to notable improvements in service delivery through increased use of "self-management" approaches, which encourage and prepare those with mental-health conditions to be self-reliant. As individuals become more self-reliant, they become more capable of managing their own long-term health conditions, reducing the use of expensive services.

Self-management has become a hallmark of Pennsylvania's mental-health system. It has been widely embraced for obvious reasons: It's working, and it's cost-efficient. A Department of Public Welfare evaluation of the state's behavioral-health system concluded that it saved $4 billion to $5 billion over 10 years.

Much of the funding for the lifeline services that are key to self-management are slated to be eliminated in the governor's proposed budget. For tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians, the loss of these services will have severe and lasting consequences. The costs will fall on the state's most vulnerable citizens and their family members. And the progress that has made Pennsylvania a model for the delivery of mental-health services will be undercut.

For 61 years, the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania has served people with mental-health conditions and their families. We have sought to improve their lives through advocacy, support, training, and education. And we are dismayed at this budget and its likely unprecedented consequences.

Sound policies come from informed and compassionate leadership. The governor must demonstrate such leadership by asking Pennsylvanians to support a decent quality of life for all citizens, including those with mental-health conditions. Unfortunately, his proposed budget falls far short of that standard.

William S. Dinwiddie is president and chief executive officer of the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania.