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Without State Funding, Regions Worry About The Children's Mental Health System

Ben Wicks
The Iowa Legislature created the children's mental health system in 2019, but has not attached any funding to services yet.

A year ago, the Iowa Legislature created a children’s mental health system, and many were concerned because that system came without state funding attached. This year the legislature experienced an unusual session broken up by the COVID-19 pandemic, and proposed funding didn’t pass. This has left some regions concerned about where that leaves the system now.

Darci Alt is feeling ok about her mental health region’s budget at the moment.

"We are doing fairly well. We probably won't hit major crisis for another year or two," said Alt, the CEO of the Heart of Iowa Mental Health and Disability Services Region. It's one of state’s 14 regions tasked with running mental health services, including setting up the new children’s system.

So far, Alt said, they’re on schedule to roll out the new state-required services, but that won’t last. The region has a low cap on the property tax levy used to fund these services, and she said her three county region is growing fast.

"We just can't keep up with the growth rate, the amount of people that we serve on an annual basis usually about double," Alt said.

But some of the state’s other regions are in much worse positions.

"We have stopped paying Vera French mental health center for their peer drop in center. We can't afford it," said Lori Elam, the CEO of the Eastern Iowa region, which covers five counties. 

Elam said they’ve started to cut services, and she’s told the legislature there’s no way they’re going to be able to get the required children’s services running by next summer without state support.

Credit Department of Human Services
Department of Human Services
A map of Iowa's 14 mental health and disability services regions as of June 2020.

"Our hands are tied, so we can't generate any more revenue. Yet they continue to mandate new services and more services," she said.

At the start of this year, Gov. Kim Reynolds proposed shifting mental health funding towards the state through a one percent sales tax increase. 

"I’m proposing, through the Invest in Iowa Act, that we reduce property tax levies and provide the needed funding through the state general fund," she said at her Condition of the State speech in January.

This would have generated an estimated $80 million towards mental health services. But the COVID-19 pandemic stopped any momentum the Invest in Iowa Act was generating, and when the legislature wrapped up last week, it only allocated money to Polk County’s region, which is running a massive deficit. 

But CEOs like Shane Walter of the Sioux Rivers Region in northwest Iowa said they were anticipating getting that state money to pay for the new system.

Now Walter said this funding uncertainty is creating more barriers to getting new services in place.

"That's our biggest problem we're facing is the fact that we can't get providers to work with us because they have no assurance that we'll be able to sustain that funding," he said

But not everyone supported Reynolds’ Invest In Iowa Act. Senator Joe Bolkcom, a Democrat from Iowa City, said the proposal could have disrupted the state’s longstanding, reliable way to fund mental health through county property taxes.

But Bolkcom said he’s disappointed the state didn’t allocate money for the new system.

"If the state wants regions to do more for kids or adults, we need - the state needs to put resources on the table, and we have failed to do that," he said

Some regions say they’re hoping the government will push back deadlines to set up some core services.

Credit Natalie Krebs / IPR File
IPR File
Peggy Huppert, the director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Iowa, says she's concerned about the lack of state funded for the state's children's mental health system.

But Peggy Huppert, the director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Iowa, said Iowans can’t afford more of a delay.

"Well it's gonna cost lives one thing, but also it's just going to give the legislature more chance to not address it," she said.

Huppert, who also serves on the state children’s behavioral health system board, said she understands the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major interruptions in the state’s government. But she said COVID-19 has also increased the need for mental health resources. 

"This problem has been there for a long time," Huppert said. "And it's just really frustrating when you see something that is actually making it worse as being used as the reason for why we can't look forward."

According to state code,the next set of servicesfor both the children and adult mental health systems are expected to be in place by July 1.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter