Welcome to the first Episode of Minding Houston for 2016. While it has been a while since we last spoke, we’ve been holding off as this episode isn’t just about policy discussions, it’s about results. And we need your help to get the word out about a program critical to the future workforce of Texas.
This is Minding Houston, I’m Bill Kelly
Astute listeners to this blog know that we have talked a lot about the mental health workforce being a big obstacle to access. In fact, we devoted a whole episode to it last February (See: Minding Houston IV), and almost a year to the day later, we are happy to announce the state of Texas is taking applications.
Senate Bill 239 by Senator Charles Schwertner creates the Mental Health Loan Repayment Assistance Program and is funded with almost $3 million. Details of the plan are shared below. The most encouraging aspect of the legislation (now law) is the recognition that it isn’t not just a lack of medical physicians, but the full spectrum of mental health providers are sorely needed to treat Texans.
While in Austin talking about the lead up to the February 8th application launch, I was able to sit down with one of the leading voices for health care in Texas, Stacy Wilson of the Texas Hospital Association, to talk about the importance of this program:
Bill Kelly: Here with Stacy Wilson of the Texas Hospital Association. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Stacy Wilson: It’s a pleasure.
Kelly: We are talking about SB 239 and the specific loan repayment mental health professions bill. Who should really be looking at taking advantage of these monies.
Wilson: There are five groups of mental health professionals that are targeted under the bill: psychiatrists, psychologists, APRNs who have specialized training in mental health, licensed professional counselors, licensed clinical social workers.
Kelly: And I know we are big fans of the inclusion of social workers, especially in Houston, on it. When we talk about the monies that are available – and I know there is some restriction on exactly how many of each group can be included on that – what do people need to watch out for if they are interested in pursuing a degree in one of these fields?
Wilson: Well the great thing is that now we have included this beyond just physicians as you mentioned, but there are requirements around serving the CHIP and/or Medicaid populations and/or working in a state prison. So there are some certification requirements that you have to do, there is an application you have to fill out and at the end of each year in order to be eligible, you have to certify that you actually served that population and that you’ve met the other requirements.
Kelly: And we are going to be posting a link to information from the college coordinating board on our website, but what are some of the deadlines for people who would be applying for this for some of their graduate education?
Wilson: So what we’ve heard from the higher education coordinating board is that the applications will be available around February  and that they will probably be due around April 30. So there is a specific website that links to this as you have mentioned and those dates are a little flexible but obviously beginning February  you should start looking for them.
Kelly: And as we talk to different advocacy groups around our area, how important is this to get the message out about our workforce for behavioral health?
Wilson: It’s imperative. We can ask for all the services we want to ask and more impatient beds and outpatient services but unless you have that dedicated workforce, it doesn’t mean anything. So it is the backbone of everything else that we do
Kelly: Staci, thank you so much for joining us.
Wilson: Thank you so much
So, now here’s our deliverable. You will find a link to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s application for this program here. Now, we need you, the loyal listeners and mental health care advocates, to help get the message out by forwarding this information on to a number of audiences that need to hear it.
People we are targeting including undergraduate students looking to pursue a degree in one of the above-mentioned fields, current students already pursuing a graduate degree, college faculty or administrators, or anyone else who cares about access to mental health services.
Forward this message or cut and paste the URL for this blog to help us share this information. Our goal is to have as many people as possible help us spread the word about this new program. Texas deserves a workforce to help treat people suffering from a mental illness, and by getting the word out, you are doing your part to help make that happen.
Just as one of the newest mental health programs is rolling out, the Legislative focus is starting to heat up. On January 26th, the Senate Finance Committee, the budget crafting body for the upper chamber in the Texas Legislature, met to discuss two primary budget issues.
First, and what took up all of the media attention, was “Discussion on the Impact of Oil Prices and Production on State Revenue and the Budget” with Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar testifying. Clearly, this was an important conversation to have, but for this session, it really boiled down to two numbers:
From the Texas Tribune:
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Tuesday faced some skepticism as he sought to soothe lawmakers’ fears about what plummeting oil prices mean for the state’s bottom line.
“Is the sky falling?” asked Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Finance, which helps write the state budget.
“No, sir,” Hegar replied, adding that while there are “clouds on the horizon,” he’d rather be in Texas than in any other state.
“I just don’t want to live in a state of denial,” West responded.
Though Hegar has noted that oil’s plunge means Texas will send hundreds of millions fewer dollars toward road construction and maintenance than originally expected, the drilling slowdown should not leave lawmakers with a revenue shortfall, he said.
In fact, much of the certified revenue estimate Hegar released in October has stayed accurate — even though it was based on significantly higher oil prices — because producers are pumping more oil than anyone expected, Hegar said.
“The budget you passed – it works, and it will continue to work,” Hegar said, noting that lawmakers also left a significant cushion of unallocated funds.
That wiggle room totals about $4 billion, said Ursula Parks, director of the Legislative Budget Board.
There’s the number: a current $4 billion surplus of unspent funds available for the 2016-2017 session. Hegar’s assessment that despite the fall in oil prices that “the sky is not falling” is a very insightful remark. Especially in view of the second number.
According to testimony given by Comptroller Hegar on January 26th, the state has $9.6 billion in the Economic Stabilization Fund, commonly referred to as the state’s “Rainy Day Fund.” Given that the two-year total, or biennium budget, for the state was set at $209.4 billion, having almost $10 billion in the bank is a good position to be in, but should Texas not be spending some of that on needed programs?
The Pew Charitable Trusts released a report on January 19th describing how state’s save money in rainy day accounts and takes a special notice of Texas. Here’s what Pew writes about how Texas has decided to move on this issue:
Given the state’s other pressing budgetary priorities— particularly the need for improved water and transportation infrastructure and a desire to reduce the state’s total amount of outstanding debt—Texas lawmakers have been divided over whether the current level of reserves is sufficient or excessive.
At the heart of this debate lies a basic disagreement over the intended purpose of the Economic Stabilization Fund. “It’s become a surprisingly emotional issue in the political debate,” said Dale Craymer, president of the nonprofit Texas Taxpayers and Research Association and a former legislative aide who helped House leaders draft the 1987 constitutional amendment that created the fund. “The last two sessions, the rainy day fund has taken on this sacred nature that was never really intended. It was intended as a management tool.”
As revenue and spending pressures shift along with the booms and busts of the economy, states stand to benefit from the additional flexibility provided by robust rainy day funds to smooth over unexpected bumps in the road. Despite having billions of dollars in its rainy day fund, Texas struggles to answer the question of how much is enough because the state lacks a clear consensus on why the fund exists in the first place. Absent a clear purpose for saving, other states also find it extremely difficult to set a meaningful savings target, which can confound their efforts to manage the budgetary ups and downs of economic activity.
While the Legislature deals with those numbers, one thing is clear: there is no need to cut services, especially for newly expanded behavioral health access. The Comptroller was clear in his assessment, and we hope lawmakers continue their investments in better access and quality of services, no matter what the cost of a barrel of oil.
The second part of the meeting, after all the media attention on oil prices left, was on behavioral health funding. Chair Jane Nelson was distressed about inaccurate news reports about how much Texas was spending on behavioral health.
As followers of Minding Houston, you should know all of our numbers come from the Legislative Budget Board, the same body that testified before Senate Finance. A link to their presentation is below, and as someone who has worked for a member of the House Appropriations Committee, these are the numbers I use when looking at state expenditures.
To give a recap of the presentation, the most informative slide is pictured below in what was the main point of the budget conversation: Texas spends about $3.6 billion in a biennium on behavioral health services across 18 agencies in 5 separate articles of the state budget. And as Chair Nelson repeatedly (and very rightly) points out, that total does not include Medicaid expenditures. See the slide below for a good breakdown:
With everyone on the same page with regards to the numbers (again, minus Medicaid), the Finance Committee expressed concern regarding the ability to coordinate spending and break down silos among various state agencies.
This is where Sonja Gaines steps in. As the Associate Commissioner for the Office of Mental Health Coordination for the Health & Human Services Commission, not only does she have a long job title, but a long list of programs to oversee and make work together.
A good example of how programs are being integrated came from Sean Hanna, Director of the Military Veteran Peer Network. He testified that after meeting with Gaines, this agency had begun to better coordinate with existing state resources of the Texas State Guard. This has greatly expanded the network of mental health peers working with our state’s armed services by maximizing existing resources.
The presentation notes that the statewide coordinating council should be developing a coordinated expenditure proposal for fiscal year 2017, and that as state budget writers, Chair Nelson will make sure any exceptional items match up within those plans.
The Health and Human Services Commission will submit that proposal to the Legislative Budget Board on June 1st of 2016.
Lastly, I wanted to mention that the new House Select Committee on Mental Health will be holding their first hearing on February 18th. We are looking forward to seeing what direction Chairman Four Price of Amarillo takes in the initial hearing.
As a quick reminder, our Harris County members on this committee include Representatives Senfronia Thompson, Garnet Coleman, and Sarah Davis.
As the Legislature starts to dig into policy and resources, be sure to stay tuned to Minding Houston for the latest information on how mental health policy discussions translate to better access and services in Houston.
This has been Minding Houston, I’m Bill Kelly.
Music in this episode: “Viper” by Ray Rude, “True Hearts” by Nick Jaina, and “Fly Drexler” by Lazlo Supreme