Friday, March 16, 2001

Activists rally for more mental health funding

By Travis James Tritten
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

        COLUMBUS — More than 1,000 mental health advocates and family members rallied at the Statehouse on Thursday, asking lawmakers for more money to reverse what they call a growing mental health crisis in Ohio.

        State funding for the treatment of mental illness has not kept pace with inflation and rising health care costs over the past decade, while demand has steadily risen.

        That means the quality of care is suffering, according to the Coalition for Healthy Communities, a group of 29 organizations that sponsored the rally.

        “I hope we can open people's eyes to what mental illness is about,” said Gloria Walker, a Cincinnati board member of the National Alliance of the Mentally Ill (NAMI). “We need additional funding.”

        Meanwhile, NAMI members and Ohio Department of Mental Health officials spoke to a House committee considering the agency's proposed budget. Budget officials said ballooning Medicaid costs and a court order to reform school funding will take most of the state's available money.

        About 536,000 Ohioans have a serious mental illness, and 60 percent of them can't get care at all, said Terry Russell, director of NAMI in Ohio.

        Mental health funding has been stalled at an annual 3 percent increase since 1998, and continues to decline in relation to all other health care agencies, according to the mental health department.

        Mr. Russell asked lawmakers for a 4 percent increase over the next two years, far below a 19 percent increase the group originally sought.

        The proposed state budget would give mental health care a 0.4 percent increase the first year, said Tom Johnson, the governor's budget director. Budget documents show the agency's general revenues would increase from $513 million to $515 million.

        “The budget we gave them is very, very tight,” Mr. Johnson said. “But we believe they can operate on that budget.”

        In 1988, the state gave communities local control of mental health care, but many communities have scarce resources and have not received funding increases from the state, Mr. Russell said. The system doesn't have the tools or the staff to care for the ill, he added.


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