Representative Ron Ehli, a Republican from Hamilton, was part of an interim committee that traveled the state for over a year studying the mental health issues. He says committee members, Republican and Democrat alike, came to one conclusion:
“Montana has a mental health crisis."
The response, at least from the Republican side, is a package of bills to enhance existing mental health services at the local level.
Ehli says the proposals total $8 million.
The three bills introduced so far would add $2 million to existing county crisis intervention programs and jail diversion, $600,000 for additional psychiatric treatment beds, $1 million for short term inpatient treatment. None of the money would go to state institutions, either the Montana State Hospital or the Montana Developmental Center.
“After all the visits that we did, across the state of Montana for the last eighteen months," Ehli said, "talking to all those people, everybody wants to bring this stuff back to the community. They’re looking for help. They think that that’s the way to fix it. These are the experts; these are the people with boots on the ground. These are people that deal with it every single day."
The Republican backed proposal stands in marked contrast to the much higher spending plan from Governor Steve Bullock.
Bullock also wants to spend more on local programs, but the bulk of the his $20 million proposal would go toward adding more beds in state facilities, while also adding 73 new positions to the state payroll. While the Governor’s plan would spend more money on mental health, the state’s major advocacy group for the disabled disagrees with Bullock’s approach.
Beth Brenneman, a staff attorney with the federally-funded Disability Rights Montana says, "That investment in institutional care is really the opposite of what the trend has been nationally, and really inviolation, we feel, of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires that people with disabilities be served in the least restrictive environment that's appropriate for their disability."
But, Brenneman says Disability Rights Montana does support the Governor’s plan to enhance community based care.
The State Senate’s leading Democrat says it’s all good.
Senate Minority leader Jon Sesso says it’s encouraging to see Republicans and Democrats agree on the need for more mental-health services, especially this early in the 90-day legislative session.
“It’s excellent that Republicans and Democrats alike got their eye on the ball, that dealing with mental health needs of our state is a top priority," Sesso says. "For day nine, having this much consensus that we’ve gotta do something is a good sign in my view."
Sesso supports Governor Bullock’s plan to expand the state institutions, calling them crucial assets that need further investment.
Lawmakers began examining the proposals for increased community based services at a subcommittee hearing on Thursday that featured a long line of witnesses, from health care providers, to family members, and even a few clients of the system, like Greg Nichols.
“I’m going to the Wind of change program in Missoula, and I think we really need mental disorder places for people because there’s nothing else for them to do except go to those mental illness places," Nichols said.
The goal of increasing mental health services appears to have bipartisan support. The question now is whether the legislature and the governor can agree on the details.