Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Wednesday, Sept. 13 @ 4 p.m.
Proposed Changes To California's Mental Health Services Act Could Hurt Existing Programs, Del Norte Health Officials Say
A vast number of Health and Human Services clients need housing, but there’s no housing out there, Shiann Hogan told Del Norte County supervisors Tuesday.
Hogan, program manager for the county’s Behavioral Health Branch, said a proposal to overhaul California’s Mental Health Services Act would divert $720,000 away from services clients already rely on to housing programs. But, she said, the Del Norte County Department of Health and Human Services spends nowhere near that amount on housing.
“Something I’ve learned through my experience in working in Behavioral Health is you can’t just place somebody in a house and hope it’s going to go well,” Hogan told supervisors. “You need the services and supports to make it successful. If we’re reducing those (services) and then providing housing, we’re really doing ourselves no justice.”
The Del Norte County Board of Supervisors weighed in on a letter from DHHS Director Ranell Brown to California Governor Gavin Newsom concerning Senate Bill 326. Adding the matter to their regular agenda as an urgency item on Tuesday, supervisors also voted to send a letter of their own to Newsom and members of the state Legislature, which is expected to take up the issue Thursday.
Brown’s letter is addressed to State Sen. Mike McGuire and Assemblyman Jim Wood, who represent Del Norte County in Sacramento. The letter is also addressed to Sen. Susan Eggman, who authored SB 326 and whose district includes western San Joaquin County.
The Mental Health Services Act, approved by California voters in 2004, places a 1 percent tax on personal income above $1 million to pay for improved support for those with serious mental health issues. That money is passed to local counties for programs and services.
On Thursday, lawmakers are expected to decide whether SB 326 and Assembly Bill 531 should be placed on the March 2024 primary election ballot, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday.
SB 326 would set aside 30 percent of the MHSA tax, roughly $1 billion, for supportive housing for those with serious mental health issues or substance abuse disorders.
AB 531 would create a bond generating at least $4.98 billion in one-time moneys to build 10,000 new behavioral health beds while streamlining the environmental permitting process.
According to District 2 Supervisor Valerie Starkey, Brown’s letter aims to get the governor to reconsider how the two legislative bills would reallocate MHSA dollars and how it’s “not going to work for small rural counties.”
Starkey reiterated that the Legislature’s action Thursday would simply place SB 326 and AB 531 before voters in March 2024.
“This is to try and get it on the ballot so that when we vote on it in 2024, it is clear as to the allocation, No. 1,” she said. “But, it’s like let’s get it right and we just don’t feel that the way they’re divvying up this funding is going to be productive for our rural community.”
In her letter, Brown stated that Del Norte County received $2,474,931 in MHSA dollars during the 2021-22 fiscal year. About $1.94 million was used for community services and supports, $486,321 went toward prevention and intervention programs and $40,598 went toward workforce education and training.
According to Brown, programs that use MHSA dollars include Coastal Connections, a resource center for youth ages 14-25, the county’s youth basketball, Teen league and KIDS Camp, the Yurok Tribe Boys & Girls Club and the Family Resource Center of the Redwoods.
The proposed MHSA changes would reduce funding to those programs by 65 percent, Brown said. It could also lead to a loss of funding for licensed professionals that oversee Behavioral Health services, she said.
“It is extremely challenging to recruit licensed professionals to our team,” Brown writes. “Over the past couple of years, we relied on contracted clinicians to provide the needed services to our clients.
This is a costly solution, but currently the only one available to obtain the needed providers to administer services. Reduction in the funding available to cover these costs would be detrimental to our programs and the community.”
Brown also points out that affordable housing in Del Norte County is scarce with multiple programs competing for a limited stock.
According to Brown’s letter, DHHS would need to set aside $720,205 of its MHSA funding for housing.
“Establishing a specific set aside amount/percentage for housing costs would tie up funds that could be used to support other needed programs within the county,” she said. “Based on the previous year’s expenditures on housing needs, Del Norte County would have difficulty expending the 30 percent set aside amount for this area.”
Hogan said she’s concerned about how the proposed changes in MHSA funding allocation would impact local prevention programs.
“Particularly the partnerships with the Yurok Boys and the Family Resource Center, those are new partnerships that have occurred in the last two to three years and those are based off the community telling us those were needed things,” she said. “It would almost eliminate our ability to fund those programs, which have awesome support. I think even during the fire we heard great things about the FRC and what they were doing for our community.”
It was District 5 Supervisor Dean Wilson who called for his colleagues to draft a separate letter from the one Brown was sending to the governor. He derided the possible MHSA overhaul as a “one-size fits-all solution” from state officials who don’t care that smaller counties don’t have the available resources to put those policies into place.
“So much of the money is allocated toward housing when we don’t even have the resources to place people into that housing even if it existed,” Wilson said. “That money would go un-utilized.”
District 3 Supervisor Chris Howard, who asked that Brown’s letter be placed on Tuesday’s agenda as an urgency item, pointed out that the California State Association of Counties and Rural County Representatives of California have also raised concerns. Howard asked that the issues Hogan brought forward be included in the letter from the Board of Supervisors and added to the information Brown provided.
“Our two strongest lobbyists, CSAC and RCRC, are not making good head road in with the governor’s office and a legislature that seems to be walking in lock step with the governor on these issues,” he said. “Until recently the specific detail on how programs would be impacted haven’t really come front and center in front of our Legislature in particular.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, Newsom states changing the MHSA is necessary for it to meet today’s needs. The state estimates that 1 in 10 California adults struggle with substance use disorder and 1 in 20 contend with serious mental health issues.