Lynn rep sees mental health as area where House may add $$$

THINKSTOCK
THINKSTOCK

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 11, 2014….House members are aware of the need to increase funding for mental health services, but it’s too early in the process to say if it will become a budget priority, according to a veteran House Democrat who serves on the budget-writing committee.

Rep. Robert Fennell (D-Lynn), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, told the News Service that lawmakers are just starting conversations about priorities, and which budget line items could see funding boosts. The House’s version of the budget will be released and debated in April.

The Department of Mental Health provides services to about 21,000 individuals, as well as the forensic evaluation and treatment services provided to 8,000 to 9,000 people each year who are referred to the agency by the juvenile, district and superior courts. While tax revenues are due to rise 4.9 percent, Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget would increases the agency’s spending by 0.6 percent to $712.4 million.

Fennell, who sponsored an event Tuesday for the department, said boosting the bottom line for mental health programs is one of his priorities. Other lawmakers are aware of the need for mental health services, and are weighing it, he said after the legislative breakfast held for DMH’s Northeast Suburban Area and Metro Suburban communities.

“It would be a priority of mine, as well as most all of my colleagues, knowing that the most vulnerable people in our communities, the need is there. We understand that need,” Fennell said. “That is the last place we would want to take away money, and it is probably one of the first places we would like to add.”

During the final 2015 budget hearing held last Friday, lawmakers heard calls for increased investments in mental health services and substance abuse treatment programs. The need for substance abuse programs has heightened awareness this year after a slew of opiate overdose deaths in Massachusetts and other parts of the country, including the death of film star Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Martha Coakley, the state’s attorney general and candidate for governor, this week called on lawmakers to reject spending cuts proposed by Gov. Deval Patrick that she said would eliminate services for hundreds of adults and children with behavioral health issues.

According to Coakley, more than 200,000 adults in Massachusetts live with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, depression, or bipolar disorder, and an estimated 84,000 children between the ages of 9 and 18 live with a mental illness that seriously impacts their life. The Coakley campaign estimates more than half of adults living with a mental illness received no treatment during the past year.

Nearly 300 people gathered at the State House for the legislative breakfast to acknowledge accomplishments made by mental health clients, and advocate for larger public investments.

Department of Mental Health Commissioner Marcia Fowler told the crowd gathered in the Great Hall that they were making a statement by being there.

“You are making a statement loud and clear about the need for mental health services, and about mental health being an essential part of all health care,” she said.

Fowler said people need to break the silence about mental illness.

“We believe that mental illnesses should be treated with the same urgency and rigor that physical conditions are treated with,” Fowler said.

Patrick this year is again facing resistance from lawmakers to his plan to transition 45 adult inpatient psychiatric beds at Taunton State Hospital to the new Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital (WRCH), with opponents of the move saying it will leave the southeastern Massachusetts area underserved.

Fowler has told lawmakers that all Taunton Hospital employees will be offered continued employment through the department and recently cautioned in budget testimony, “We face the stark reality that to keep Taunton open, DMH would spend $8.5 million more than if the beds were at WRCH.”

Fowler also predicted the creation of new state-operated mental health community programs and over 100 state jobs if the Taunton beds are transitioned to Worcester. “This is the right thing to do for the individuals who have a right to the best treatment possible,” she wrote. “We must put patients first.”

Fennell told the crowd it is easier for lawmakers to advocate for level funding or more funding if they are familiar with people’s struggles.

“There are a thousand line items we look at, debate,” he said. “The best thing we can do as a Legislature is put a face and story to that line item.”

Patricia Cuddemi, a Saugus resident who has struggled with mental illness, told the crowd she is like many people trying to live their lives with symptoms.

“I am your mother, your sister, your wife, your neighbor, your friend. I am a person with mental illness,” Cuddemi said.

Because of her mental illness, Cuddemi said she lost her husband, children, home, and a 30-year career. She spent a decade in and out of hospitals, and found herself homeless.

Cuddemi said it took her a long time to come to terms with her diagnosis – which she did not describe. It was only through help from her caseworker from the Department of Mental Health she was able to control her symptoms.

“Together we found the answers. She became a partner in my discovery of my recovery,” she said.

[Michael Norton contributed reporting]

Copyright 2014 State House News Service

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