DHW to legislators: Mental health can involve housing, transportation

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Director Richard Armstrong presents to members of the House Health and Welfare committee

“We can give a person the best psychiatrist in the state of Idaho, but if that person lives under a bridge, it doesn’t do them much good,” said Ross Edmunds from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (DHW) to an oversight committee in the House.

Edmunds heads the behavioral health division of DHW. He was explaining to the House Health and Welfare Committee that government-funded behavioral health services may also need to include government-funded housing and transportation. He was also recommending that behavioral health services should be distributed by more local and regional means.

Speaking to IdahoReporter.com after the committee meeting, Edmunds elaborated on his remarks. “We already spend some of our funds on providing housing and transportation to some of our recipients of behavioral health services” he explained. “In the governor’s new budget, we’re asking for $466,900–seed money, if you will–to launch new, regional Idaho Behavioral Health Boards,” he noted. “The best comparison for what we’re proposing is the already existing district health boards. What we’re seeking to do is to create seven, free standing, psuedo-governmental organizations, that we’d refer to as Regional Behavioral Health Boards. These boards would oversee these additional services, services that I think of as ‘recovery support services.’ They are necessary, in order for people with mental illness to live a life of normal community connectedness.”

Edmunds, along with DHW’s other five divisional managers and DHW Director Richard Armstrong, presented an overview Wednesday of the inner workings of the entire department to members of the legislative committee.

While the idea of expanding mental health services to include taxpayer-funded housing and transportation came with no specific cost data, the state budget that Gov. Butch Otter proposed on Monday calls for an additional $170 million of both state and federal tax revenues to be allocated to DHW, which amounts to a budget increase of approximately 7.9 percent.

“Most of our budget expansion will be taken up by increased Medicaid costs,” Armstrong told IdahoReporter.com after the committee hearing. “Historically, there have been many people in Idaho who were eligible for Medicaid services, but who never applied for it. Once we have either a state or federal health insurance exchange in place, we anticipate many more residents will become aware of their Medicaid eligibility, and the demand for these services will expand.”

Armstrong said that approximately 81 percent of DHW’s entire budget is devoted to Medicaid, a federal program that is funded with both state and federal tax revenues, and administered by the state.

During a question-and-answer period at the committee hearing, Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise, said to Edmunds: “We are charged to secure the health and safety of Idahoans and we really need to know what’s going on. Last month, around Christmas, I got a call from a woman who was overwhelmed, and her son was threatening to kill her. How do we let things get so bad?”

“We serve more people today than we did before the recession,” Edmunds replied. “But despite serving more people, we still have a lesser array of services.” Edmonds explained that the behavioral health division will continue to find ways to provide more services, but noted to Chew that “we cannot respond to a problem if we don’t know about it.”

“If some of our population can’t get to where they need to go to receive the services they need, then that’s a real problem,” noted Rep. Brandon Hixon, R-Caldwell. He told IdahoReporter.com that “we’ll need to look carefully at the budgetary considerations, but I like the idea that local communities need to have skin in the game, so to speak, when it comes to distributing these services.”

“I hope Idahoans realize that this is extremely complicated,” said Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, who is vice chair of the committee, to IdahoReporter.com. “It looks easy, but it isn’t. Members of this committee, myself included, will put the necessary work into this and do our homework before any decisions are made.”

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