Senator Creigh Deeds: We need funding, and a long-term mental health strategy

December 28, 2022

I’ll be doing everything that I can to ensure that in the 2023 legislative session we fix our broken mental health care system, and fix it correctly.” – Senator Deeds

Richmond, VA – In case you missed it, Senator Creigh Deeds (D-Charlottesville) wrote a column in the Richmond Times-Dispatch calling for a long-term strategy with long-term investments to address the ongoing mental health crisis.

Richmond Times-Dispatch: ​​We need funding, and a long-term mental health strategy

By Senator Creigh Deeds

For the better part of the last decade, the state of our politics has taken a more entrenched and extreme tone and tenor. Policy nuance gets lost the more political the environment becomes and legislators retreat to their partisan corners at the expense of solutions. But every now and then an issue will arise in which Republicans and Democrats can put their partisan differences aside and deliver for their constituents, no matter party affiliation. Virginia has a golden opportunity to do just that in our upcoming legislative session on the topic of mental health care.

In the aftermath of the tragedies in Charlottesville and Chesapeake, Gov. Glenn Youngkin has proposed significant investments to begin to catch up after decades of underfunding critical mental health care programs. While I applaud the governor for his intentions, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remind him and my colleagues in the General Assembly that these proposed investments should be viewed as the floor, not the ceiling. If our goal is to keep people out of crisis, then we have more work to do.

The governor’s plan is a crisis-first response, closely resembling that of Arizona’s. The premise of the plan is centered around regional crisis centers with the idea that these centers would service individuals in need faster, get police officers out of emergency rooms, and take pressure off of ERs and hospitals — all policies that we can agree on and ultimately support. There’s no question that we need this response, but instead of having a “crisis-first mentality” we can do more to fix our broken system now.

For starters, let’s keep people out of crisis to begin with. Let’s invest in community and education-based services that meet people where they are and give them the immediate help they need, long before they enter a crisis. These long-term investments, like investing in more school counselors and making sure pupil-to-counselor ratios are at a reasonable level, are the types of long-term investments that we must consider if we’re serious about addressing the mental health crisis.

Let’s also work to address the nearly 28% vacancy rate on our Community Service Boards (CSBs). We need to recognize that staffing shortages present one of the largest challenges to mental health care in the commonwealth. Not surprisingly, Virginia ranks near the bottom among U.S. states when it comes to average compensation for these health care workers, which is unacceptable. Just last year, Senate Democrats proposed a budget that included $37 million for CSB employees, but it was rejected by the governor’s allies in the House and their wages remained stagnant. Let’s compensate these essential workers for what they’re worth and what they deserve, and ultimately address a fundamental hole in our mental health services.

In addition to these challenges, and because a lot of community mental health services are provided by the private sector, we’re going to have to address the low reimbursement rates for Medicaid. Those reimbursement rates mean that a lot of providers don’t take Medicaid and leave a large percent of the population who rely on Medicaid for their health care without the services they need. It’s a glaring hole in our system and we must work to fix it.

Lastly, if we are to address the staffing shortages at our psychiatric hospitals and the myriad other challenges that we face in this space, we need steady funding. I understand money isn’t the answer to all of our problems, but it’s a big part of it. We’ve been ignoring mental health for too long and we cannot afford to do it any longer. We cannot, as a commonwealth, solve these complex problems without a dedicated source of revenue in which we can rely on year after year. To use one-time money for a problem that certainly isn’t going away is irresponsible, both fiscally and to the Virginians we’re trying to serve. Rather than fill our budget with tax cuts for corporations and the wealthiest among us, I’d hope the governor would reconsider and allocate more for the most vulnerable Virginians, not the wealthiest.

At the end of the day progress is happening in Virginia and that’s always worth celebrating. I say thank you to Gov. Youngkin for raising the stakes and engaging on this issue. What you are proposing must be done. But it is only the beginning. Small steps in the right direction can be larger if we push for it. And as a result more Virginians will get the help they need. More lives will be saved. And more families can have the peace of mind of knowing their loved ones are being treated.

So today I’ll tip my hat to the governor for elevating this critically important issue. But tomorrow, I’ll be doing everything that I can to ensure that in the 2023 legislative session we fix our broken mental health care system, and fix it correctly.