Lawyers and officials are keen to put the extra $800 million in mental health funding included in the latest state budget to good use. But it could be weeks or months before agencies can enact legislative support for mental health, waiting for government red tape for state and federal money.

Dozens of health care providers, patients, attorneys and officials spoke about the state’s biggest mental health issues during a public hearing Wednesday by State Attorney General Letitia James.

“What are we doing to ensure that private hospitals share the burden of caring for people with mental illness?” – said James at the very beginning of the hearing, which lasted several hours in the evening.

“I think you are raising a critical issue,” responded witness Ron Richter, CEO of the JCCA.

More than 42% of US adults have symptoms of an anxiety or depressive disorder, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a figure that has more than doubled since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

New Yorkers are no exception: James said there are fewer than 5,000 psychiatric beds in the state, 247 of them for children.

The shortage is forcing people with a mental disorder not to go to emergency rooms, especially children and young people. Some people with mental or behavioral problems go to emergency departments three to four times, waiting two to seven days for an inpatient bed.

Children and uninsured patients are often denied mental health care due to lack of access, education, or language barriers.

“Situations like in Buffalo and Texas where children are killed happen when we have warning signs about young people who are fighting tooth and nail and end up hurting others,” Richter said. “We don’t want this to happen again. We know the warning signs. We just don’t pay for the treatment.”

Since March 2020, approximately 400 inpatient psychiatric beds have been eliminated across the state, either to be converted for use with COVID or decommissioned.

The reduction of short-term psychiatric beds in New York has been going on for decades. James plans to use the information gathered from the hearings for the office to use in future investigations into allegations of inadequate mental health treatment.

State Senate Health Committee Chairman Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat from the Bronx, has pushed for the need for Medicaid reforms.

Facilities with more than 16 inpatient beds are not eligible for Medicaid reimbursement.

“Unfortunately, austerity has reigned in New York State for the past 10 years in everything related to Medicaid, mental health or public health, and I think we have seen the consequences of that,” he said.

Mental health services remain severely understaffed or underpaid.

The latest state budget included $4.7 billion for the state mental health administration, an increase of $813 million, of which $10 million was earmarked for staffing shortages in public mental health hospitals.

“Funding for the Department of Mental Health increased by almost $813 million, or 20%, from FY22 ($3.3B) to FY23 ($4.1B),” Budget Department spokesman Shams Tarek said on Wednesday. .

The Budget Department did not respond to a question about plans to keep increased mental health funding in future budgets, especially as federal pandemic aid dries up.

“Funding is budgeted but, again, not allocated, so this is another example of what needs to be accelerated,” said Andrea Smith, president and CEO of the State Coalition for Children’s Behavioral Health.​

Mental health officials want Gov. Kathy Hochul to sign an executive order granting state funds and receiving a federal award once approved.

The stigmatization of people with behavioral disorders or mental health problems has led to a lack of state and federal investment for generations.

“Hospitals were closing, people were deinstitutionalized in society, but the money never followed them,” said New York State Mental Health Association CEO Glenn Liebman. “It’s been causing headaches for decades and decades.”

At the hearing, Liebman shared testimony showing the need to expand mental health education, support, and access to treatment at all stages of life. He hopes the Attorney General’s advocacy and the normalization of mental health discussions will help increase the funding and services people need.

“Greater public awareness really matters,” Liebman said. “Once we can start normalizing that, then we can get the resources to do it.”

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