ROANOKE — Virginia lawmakers charged with reforming the mental health system learned Wednesday that $135 million worth of new programs have been placed on hold.
The funding was part of a $154 million package of reforms intended to build services to prevent people from having crises that require hospitalization, and to reduce hospital readmissions. It was included in the two-year budget that lawmakers worked on just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
With tax revenue falling off, and pandemic-related costs rising, Gov. Ralph Northam has proposed line items that could remain in the budget but would not have funding.
“It seems like everything is connected and well thought out,” said Del. Marcia Price, D-Newport News, during an online meeting of the Joint Subcommittee to Study Mental Health. “Is there a method to prioritize?”
“Which of your children are you willing to give up?” asked Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, who chairs the committee. “Each one of these things is going to improve somebody’s life. That’s what makes it tough.”
Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, who chairs the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee, said human services, education and health care are the most pressing needs.
“This is going to be austere,” she said. “The governor will be announcing his revenue forecast by the end of the week or the beginning on next week, and it isn’t going to be good.”
Alison Land, commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services, said the state’s psychiatric hospitals have spent millions more on wages, supplies and equipment during the pandemic, with about $1.4 million that has not been covered by relief funds.
She also said outbreaks of the virus at Piedmont Geriatric Hospital and Southern Virginia Mental Institute are continuing, forcing the hospitals to stop admitting new patients. Meanwhile, the other state hospitals are at or above 100% capacity.
The lawmakers heard detailed presentations from Land on the effect of moving people out of the hospitals and into the community, and the impact of the pandemic on the community services boards that serve as localities’ public mental health agencies.
Virginia’s Medicaid program representatives also briefed them on expansion of telehealth for behavioral health during the pandemic.
A number of Medicaid therapy and outpatient programs worth about $30 million over two years have also been unallotted in the budget.
The subcommittee is set to expire at the end of this year. This was the first meeting it held in 2020. Deeds said it needs to split into three working groups: finance, crisis intervention and criminal justice.
He also said the subcommittee needs to be thinking about whether it wants to ask for an extension, create a permanent commission on mental health, fold into another entity or expire.
“We’ve been at it more than six years. There is still more to do than has been accomplished,” Deeds said. “We have to act with urgency in terms of facing our workload.”
Get Government & Politics updates in your inbox!
Stay up-to-date on the latest in local and national government and political topics with our newsletter.