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Maine Voices: COVID crisis hits behavioral health
Community-based providers of mental health and substance use disorder services may not survive if the state doesn’t release federal funds.
We are in the midst of a trifecta – the COVID epidemic, a rapid economic collapse based on this epidemic, and a powerful movement for racial justice. Even before COVID-19, lack of access to timely, high-quality treatment was the greatest barrier to a healthier America.
In this growing crisis, the services provided by Maine’s community-based mental health and substance use treatment providers are being severely impacted – both in the ability to deliver outpatient and residential services and the dramatically increasing needs of Mainers as they endure this pandemic. Many programs were already operating with deficits due to inadequate rates, and the pandemic reduced revenues further while adding new expenses. The economic collapse has also had a severely negative impact on their workforce – one that was stretched to the limit before any of these crises hit.
In January, before public health emergency, the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services penned a column highlighting the fact that even then “the safety net to provide this care, already stretched thin, is beginning to fray… service providers — the people and organizations that actually provide health care, including mental health services — are being pushed to the breaking point.”
And then COVID-19 hit us all in March – and cases and death counts continue to rise across our country.
In May, Maine headlines proclaimed “Unprecedented mental health crisis looms as Mainers battle COVID-19, economic downturn, experts warn.” National surveys and headlines across the country echoed this warning.
In June, the Alliance testified before the Maine Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee that state contracted community-based providers of mental health and substance use services were struggling to continue to provide services in the face of growing need, growing costs due to the pandemic, and declining revenues.
By early July, the Alliance wrote to Gov. Mills asking that a COVID-19 Provider Relief Fund be created to support these providers of critically needed community-based behavioral health services from the $1.25 billion in COVID-19 funding allocated to the state through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act, the $2 trillion stimulus bill passed by Congress in March.
To date, none of this money has been allocated to shore up this system of care.
It is clear that the pandemic is growing across the country and we are very nervous about predictions of a fall spike in Maine. It is also very important to note that the need for mental health and substance use services has not peaked. Any time we go through a national crisis that effects people’s lives so dramatically, it often takes time (3 -12 months) for the mental health impacts to manifest and for people to seek treatment. People right now are mostly just trying to make it through. Also, the needs of people with chronic and persistent mental illness tend to increase in severity over time following a crisis.
Maine faces the risk of further compounding this situation without some relief for the providers of these services. Even as you read this, doors are closing on services that are desperately needed, and many more services are increasingly in danger of closure.
Funding for lifesaving mental health and substance use disorders must not only be sustained in the face of growing need, but also increased to both meet the new demand and cover extraordinary expenses incurred to implement safety guidelines during the pandemic. Without sustaining and investing in community-based behavioral health programs, many Mainers will find no one is there to answer their calls for help. The costs to the state will be higher as they head to emergency rooms.
We recognize the struggle to preserve and increase funding in this highly-charged political time. The future is uncertain.
What is certain though is the need to preserve an intact system of community-based behavioral health services as the critical social safety net for our fellow Mainers.
Mental health and substance use disorder treatment services save dollars and lives. Adequate funding to avoid program closures and reduced access is essential for the state’s bottom line — and a healthy Maine future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eric Meyer is president of the board for the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services and president and CEO of Spurwink Services
Malory Shaughnessy is executive director of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services
The Alliance is a statewide membership association for community-based behavioral health organizations.