Local mental health group closer to funding goal

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

March 17, 2017 at 11:06 p.m.
Updated March 17, 2017 at 11 p.m.

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst

Sen. Lois Kolkhorst   contributed photo for The Victoria Advocate

State Sen. Lois Kolkhorst is pledging to fund rural mental health authorities' jail diversion programs.

Although the amount of funding hasn't been determined yet, Kolkhorst got a placeholder in the Senate's budget on Thursday.

The placeholder directs the Health and Human Services Commission to fund rural mental health authorities' jail diversion programs, according to a news release from her Capitol office.

The Senate Finance Committee, which Kolkhorst serves on, expects to finalize the budget and send it to the full Senate for consideration by next week.

The amount of funding will be negotiated with the House of Representatives, which also creates a budget, and will probably not be decided until a conference between the two legislative bodies.

The date of the conference is determined by the speaker of the house and the lieutenant governor, who appoint conferees.

For the last legislative session, that happened in April, Matthew Russell, Kolkhorst's communication director, wrote in an email. Russell did not answer when asked what the odds were that additional dollars would be allocated when revenues are down.

For the 2016-2017 biennium, the Legislature budgeted $3.6 billion, up from $3.4 billion the biennium before, according to the Texas Comptroller's Office.

Texas has $104.87 billion in state funds for the 2017-2018 budget, which is a 2.7 percent decrease from 2016-2017, Comptroller Glenn Hegar said in January.

Still, Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, has pledged to do more to improve mental health care.

"Currently, county jails and emergency rooms are sometimes the only option for holding individuals who need mental health treatment," she wrote in a news release Thursday. "These types of settings can be costly for county taxpayers and ultimately can fail to provide the person in crisis with the mental health care they need."

Kolkhorst Rider by Victoria Advocate on Scribd

For months, the Gulf Bend Community Collaborative has been lobbying the legislature for more funds.

Specifically, the collaborative, which is composed of representatives from law enforcement, the medical community and nonprofits, want an estimated $11.6 million.

The money would go toward paying 14 mental health deputies, 12 mental health case workers and two supervisors to respond to crises 24/7 in the seven-county area over four years. The goal is to divert people with mental illness from jails.

Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said mental health is a high priority for legislators on both sides of the aisle.

"The fact that they've gotten a rider in the appropriations bill is a good indication of how seriously they're taking this," she said about the Gulf Bend Community Collaborative. "Obviously, it's going to be a tough session as far as revenue is concerned, but this is one of the issues of 'pay me now or pay me later.' It will be a lot more expensive if we wait and don't provide those services for the people who need them."

She also thought requesting $11.6 million was reasonable.

"I think that's the minimum of what we need in the community. Whatever we do is going to be way less than the need that exists," Deitch said.

Victoria County Sheriff T. Michael O'Connor, Jackson County Sheriff A.J. "Andy" Louderback and the Gulf Bend Center Executive Director Jeff Tunnell were in Austin on Friday to meet with Kolkhorst's and State Rep. Geanie Morrison's staff to discuss mental health more, Victoria County Sheriff's Office spokesman Ward Wyatt wrote via email.

Tunnell could not be reached for comment Friday.


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