Short-term fix to a long-term problem

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It was a relief for many Montana families recently when Gov. Steve Bullock announced that $30 million will be restored to the Department of Public Health and Human Services by Sept. 1.

Funding for mental health services and other kinds of case management had been dramatically slashed at a special legislative session due to inaccurate forecasting and a severe fire season last year.

Of course, the agencies that provide services tried to cobble together solutions so that clients would be impacted as little as possible, but they were pretty much in an untenable position.

That’s been mediated to some extent now, but mental-health professionals are worried it may take years to restore the level of care to what it had been.

“They dismantled a system that took decades to build,” said Sheila Smith, director of the Western Montana Mental Health Center in Kalispell. “You can’t rebuild those overnight.”

Part of the problem is the difficulty of rehiring staff that were let go when funding was lost. Not only will many of them have already found jobs, but others will hesitate to return to work when long-term funding for their jobs is uncertain.

A lawsuit filed recently seeks to have the lost funding restored retroactively, but that seems unlikely to prevail. The Legislature’s power of the purse ought not to be arrogated by the judicial branch — even with good intentions.

What we need is public officials, both legislative and executive, who work together to create realistic solutions to the needs of Montanans, both in this realm and others. We can’t spend money we don’t have, but we can’t ignore the needs of the community either.

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