Three years ago, a series of state budget cuts left mental-health providers and patients reeling.
Nearly $100 million was stripped from the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services in 2017 as part of an effort to buffer shortages in revenue. It was a financial blow that would ripple through Montana’s vulnerable mental health-care system in the years to follow. Many clinics closed their doors, case managers were laid off, and patients were displaced and forced to travel elsewhere for their mental-health needs.
A $30 million restoration to the health department came in 2018, but local providers told the Inter Lake at the time that the damage had already been done. The initial cuts had essentially, “dismantled a system that took decades to build.”
Gov. Steve Bullock certainly shares in some of the blame for the cutbacks, as they came under his watch from the Governor’s Office.
When pressed on the issue during a meeting with the Inter Lake editorial board last week, Bullock insisted that rebuilding Montana’s mental-health system will be one of his primary focuses during his remaining 11 months as governor.
Bullock appears to be sticking to that statement.
Less than a week after he met with the Inter Lake, state officials announced a plan to invest $80 million over the next five years to expand community-based services for individuals with severe and disabling mental illnesses. This infusion, combined with the $30 million restoration in 2018, would exceed the funding prior to 2017’s cuts.
Montana has ranked in the top five for suicide rates in the nation for the past 30 years — an unwelcome distinction that hits close to home for many across Northwest Montana who have been impacted by the effects of mental illness.
And while Bullock’s plan is a good first effort to change that tide and rebuild the state’s mental-health system that was unnecessarily dismantled in 2017, it’s imperative that state lawmakers foster these efforts for the long-term. Reasonable access to mental-health care has to be a priority in this state going forward. Now is the time to finally make that shift — for good.
Comments on the $80 million proposal are being accepted through March 3. Email firstname.lastname@example.org; or mail them to Director’s Office, PO Box 4210, Helena, MT 59604-4210.