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EDITORIAL: Maine lawmakers need to fund bills to improve mental health services

Bangor Daily News - 4/12/2024

Apr. 12—The BDN Editorial Board operates independently from the newsroom, and does not set policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on

A collection of bills that could make needed improvements to Maine's broad mental health care system are at risk of languishing in Augusta because of a lack of funding.

We understand that there are a lot of demands for state funds, including surplus revenues. And that significant investments are slated for mental health services through a supplemental state budget that will soon be finalized by lawmakers.

However, many of the bills in this package, including bills to help train and hire more social workers and to increase children's mental health services in rural areas, carry relatively small price tags for the differences they can make in the lives of Mainers.

In addition, by drawing attention to these bills as a package, advocates have reminded us that the mental health label covers a wide swath of services and programs, serving a wide array of Mainers.

As Malory Shaughnessy, the executive director of the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, recently told the Bangor Daily News editorial board, Maine's system of care is falling short because it lacks enough resources at a time when the demand for mental health services is increasing. Mental health programs, like many other services, are also strained by ongoing difficulties in hiring and retaining workers.

The coalition that she is part of has worked to identify gaps in existing programs and needed connections between these programs. They have identified more than a dozen bills in what they are calling a Maine Resiliency Package. Many of the bills have already been passed by lawmakers, but they are awaiting funding from the Legislature before it adjourns later this month.

According to a forecast that was updated last month, Maine is projected to see nearly $373 million in surplus revenues in the next two years. That is money beyond what the state expected to collect, mostly through state taxes. Gov. Janet Mills has warned that the state is expected to see a reduction in available funds, mostly as federal pandemic relief money is spent. As a result, she has proposed to set aside more than $100 million to fund ongoing programs in the future.

We hear the governor's concern, but the investments sought in the resiliency package can help ease the many unmet mental health needs that have been documented in Maine.

For example, a recent report from Maine's Child Welfare Ombudsman Christine Alberi, pointed to a lack of services that were harming Maine families. "Essentially every case specific review completed this year by the Ombudsman detailed a case and a family that were negatively affected by a lack of services for both children and adults," she wrote.

Shortcomings in the state's mental health system were also highlighted through the initial findings of the panel reviewing the Oct. 25 shooting in Lewiston in which 18 people were killed and 13 injured.

"The mental health resources in our community are not sufficient — and they're certainly not sufficient in our state," Sanford Police Chief Craig Andersen told the Portland Press Herald last month. "We're leaving folks out there hanging without the support that they need."

Lawmakers can't fix all of these and other deficiencies in the state's mental health care system this session, but they can direct needed funding to a variety of programs that will expand services and the mental health workforce.

In addition, they could and should fund a bill from Sen. Joe Baldacci of Bangor, already approved by both the state House and Senate, which would have the state apply for a federal waiver to a longstanding and outdated prohibition on using Medicaid funds for certain mental health services. The state has already applied for and received a similar waiver for substance use funding. This bill would leverage state funding to help access millions more in federal funding. Additionally, while not in the purview of state lawmakers, this entire prohibition known as the Institution for Mental Diseases exclusion should be reassessed at the federal level.

It is encouraging that lawmakers have already passed many bills that address some of the shortcomings in Maine's mental health care system. But they haven't completed their work until funding is secured to turn them into reality.


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