By Teddy Jacobsen
State Sen. Creigh Deeds says he will push for funding for behavioral health in the coming weeks after the General Assembly reconvenes in April to finalize next year’s budget.
The General Assembly adjourned on Feb. 25 after passing a partial budget that does not include any money for behavioral mental health. The so-called skinny budget that passed only includes items that the House of Delegates and Senate could agree on.
“We’re going to walk away with the most funding possible because I’ll be in the room,” said Deeds, a Democrat who represents the 25th District.
Deeds said he and other members of the Senate are pushing for more funding for mental health and education, but members of the House have not budged.
“There are lots of services that we have that we’ve been short on for a long, long time, and now’s the time to catch up,” he said.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin proposed a $230 million mental health plan last December. Deeds has been critical of the governor’s plan. The senator said only about $150 million of Youngkin’s plan would go to behavioral health, and the rest would go to developmental disability services.
Deeds said the Senate’s budget amendments includes a $160 million investment in new behavioral health jobs and higher pay for people who are already working in the field.
The Senate also passed an amendment that would allocate $50 million of next year’s budget to increase compensation for staff at Community Services Boards. But the amendment was not included in the skinny budget approved by the joint committee of House and Senate members, of which Deeds is a member.
Ann-Ashby McKissick, a pharmacist and the chair of the Community Services Board, said she is pessimistic about Deeds’ push for behavioral health funding.
“He talks a big talk, but then nothing happens,” she said. “If he really wants to make it happen, I think he could make that happen.”
Deeds said he wants to address the shortage of doctors and nurses equipped to deal with mental health issues. Deeds said 28% of all statewide Community Services Board jobs are vacant. The boards provide mental health services, substance abuse treatment and developmental disability support.
McKissick said more people will apply for mental health treatment jobs if the boards receive funding to increase salaries.
Another Community Services Board member, Hugh Ferguson, said limited bed space in hospitals is another issue that needs immediate funding.
Ferguson said Rockbridge County mental health patients often travel to Staunton’s Western State Hospital for its mental health services because it is closest hospital of its size. The hospital has 302 beds, but Ferguson said patients are often put on waiting lists.
A decade ago, authorities couldn’t find a bed for Deeds’ son, Gus, during a mental health crisis. Gus committed suicide in 2013 after attacking his father with a knife, seriously wounding him.
“When somebody does need to be temporarily hospitalized, there’s not very many places for them to go,” Deeds said.
Ferguson, a retired county police officer, said mental health crises are often handled by law enforcement. While he was still working in law enforcement, Ferguson said he helped develop a 40-hour crisis intervention class for law enforcement officers and behavioral health professionals.
“Police officers and deputies should not be the people who are trying to provide mental health counseling to someone,” he said. “But it’s fallen into our lap, and we should be as prepared as we can to deal with it.”