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Penn. Gov. Calls for More Mental Health Services, EMS Funding

The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa.

Following Gov. Tom Wolf’s call to break down barriers that block struggling people from getting mental health treatment, area county officials—and statewide counterparts alike—are pushing for increased funding to support the rising caseloads their mental health agencies face.

Somerset County’s commissioners threw their support behind a County Commissioners of Pennsylvania “2020 priority list” that presses lawmakers to boost funding for the broad, community-based mental county health services—as well as the responders who are often the first on scene to help them when issues occur.

“With the opioid epidemic, we’ve continued to see many people with a need to receive increased services related to their addictions—whether its inpatient or outpatient treatment,” said Bedford-Somerset Developmental & Behavioral Health Services Administrator Mary Piatt-Bruner, who oversees a $4 million budget to ensure people in both counties have 24-7 services.

“And, unfortunately, even as the counties’ population has continued to get smaller, we’ve seen steady growth across the board for our programs—whether it’s support for depression, anxiety, childhood diagnosis of autism or other issues,” she said.

Bruner and Cambria County Behavioral Health/Intellectual Disabilities Programs Administrator Tracey Selak praised Wolf’s effort this month to launch a mental health anti-stigma campaign, “Reach Out PA. Your Mental Health Matters.”

There’s cautious optimism Wolf may follow up by directing more money to support the state’s mental health programs in his 2020-21 budget, both said.

“We haven’t seen a funding increase in many years—and after a 20% reduction 8 years ago, we’re only partly recouped about 10% of that in the years since,” said Selak. “It’s difficult because we’re facing a growing need by trying to do more with less.”

Many of Cambria County’s problems are mirrored across the nation—such as the need for more psychiatrists, she said.

Selak noted that a drug user on the path to recovery might need ongoing outpatient treatment and, separately, counseling for a mental health issue that led them to drugs in the first place.

When fatal overdoses occur, an entire family mourning a loved one’s loss might need someone to turn to, she added.

“The opioid epidemic is having a devastating effect,” Selak said.

The statewide County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania sets its hot button “priority” list annually—and this year’s included mainstays such as rural broadband expansion, adult probation funding and county level tax reform, officials announced in Harrisburg on Tuesday.

But this year, the push for increased mental health funding and finding solutions to the EMS “crisis” were moved to the top of the list.

A CCAP task force issued a 22-page report on the latter issue was released in 2018 to address statewide staffing shortfalls and financial issues burdening many ambulance services.

The Commissioners Association is pushing for efforts to shift to more regional or countywide responses.

Somerset County Commissioner Pamela Tokar-Ickes, a longtime CCAP board member, said the statewide group is “standing together” on both issues.

Tokar-Ickes said the group will make sure that message is heard in the weeks to come as local leaders meet with their state representatives and senators to seek support.

“I think there’s certainly an awareness we’re dealing with a crisis here,” she said. “But we need to speak in a unified voice.”

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