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Commentary: Mental Health and Expansion of Medicaid

There is a growing consensus forming in the General Assembly that now is the time to improve the safety net for mental health services. Both the House and Senate budgets increase funding for these services by millions of dollars (House proposed a $10 million increase and the Senate $20 million) above the proposed budget of $36 million that Governor McDonnell presented in December.

What Virginians may not know is that under Marketplace Virginia in the Senate budget, the State would gain approximately $200M a year for mental health services and 77,000 uninsured Virginians needing these services would benefit from this plan.

These dollars would support medication, therapy, community based treatment programs and inpatient hospitalization that individuals could access when the first signs of mental illness show themselves. In a recent study funded by the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services with the University of Virginia’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, (A Study of Face-To-Face Emergency Evaluations Conducted By Community Services Boards In April 2013), we learned that nearly 50 percent of the voluntary admissions to psychiatric hospitals could have been avoided if early treatment and community based services had been available; 25 percent of involuntary admissions could have been avoided.

A recent report from the organization, Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, entitled “Cut Violence, Cut Prison Costs” noted that “If low-income families receive medical insurance, they are more likely to be routinely screened and treated for their health problems such as substance abuse, depression or excessive aggression. Health care professionals tell us that early treatment can prevent more serious escalation of behaviors that can be harmful to the individual, to family members and to the general public.

Senator Deeds’ bill (SB 260) and other bills before the General Assembly take important steps to improve the crisis safety net. I applaud those steps but I believe that treating mental illness must begin at a much earlier stage and this will only happen if more people have insurance to pay for these services. In fact, Margaret Nimmo Crowe, executive director of Voices for Virginia’s Children, notes: “There is ‘no way’ Virginia can successfully reform its mental-health-care system without addressing the uninsured.”

This is why it is so critical that Virginia seize the opportunity to leverage Federal dollars by adopting Marketplace Virginia.

The House budget conferees should not hold Virginians hostage in an ideological lock. Marketplace Virginia has the potential to make us all healthier and safer while the Federal government absorbs a significant amount of the cost.

Now is the time to act.

Barbara Favola (D-31) is a state senator representing parts of Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties.