Mental-health services in Billings grab Gov. Bullock's attention

2013-10-28T07:13:00Z 2014-08-25T06:26:19Z Mental-health services in Billings grab Gov. Bullock's attentionBy CINDY UKEN The Billings Gazette

The waiting lists for new clients seeking mental-health care in Eastern Montana keep growing and growing.

At the same time, state funding for services created specifically to serve Montana’s poorest residents hasn’t kept pace.

The shortfall has forced the South Central Montana Regional Mental Health Center in Billings to stop taking new clients.

Leaders from the Mental Health Center, along with officials from three other Billings mental-health care providers, will host members of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s office Wednesday.

The hope is to get the governor’s help in persuading the state Legislature to increase funding for mental-health care for the poor.

“We are in dire straits,” said Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy, who chairs the Mental Health Center board. “We are so dependent on state money that any hiccup in the road affects our clients.”

More than 1,000 people a month seek help from the Billings Mental Health Center. But, a lack of adequate funding has forced the center to stop accepting new clients into its Mental Health Services Plan, according to Executive Director Barbara Mettler.

The state-funded plan was created to help low-income Montanans with serious mental illnesses who don’t qualify for Medicaid.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services makes quarterly block grants to the four regional community health centers for most of the Mental Health Services Plan care they provide. But that pool of money has come up short for the Billings center, which serves an estimated population of 201,421 and covers an area of 25,625 square miles

Staff from the governor’s office are expected to tour the center Wednesday, and visit with other mental-health providers at the Rainbow House, the HUB and the Community Crisis Center.

"No Montanan suffering from mental illness should have to struggle to get basic care,” Bullock told The Billings Gazette. “Unfortunately, the Legislature failed to extend health care to some of the Montanans who need it most.

A minority of legislators stood in the way of accepting federal dollars to expand Medicaid, Bullock continued. “In so doing, they denied tens of thousands of Montanans access to needed care and denied providers, like the South Central Montana Regional Mental Health Center, access to needed revenue.”

The Medicaid expansion plan, backed by Bullock but rejected by the 2013 Legislature, would have covered people with incomes up to 138 percent of poverty level, including about 90 percent of those now eligible for the Mental Health Services Plan, according to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.

Despite this, Bullock said his administration will continue to find ways to ensure that all Montanans get the care they need. The Wednesday tour is part of an ongoing conversation with leaders in the community about the strengths and gaps in mental-health services across Montana, he said.

DPHHS is working on a federal Medicaid waiver that would cover a limited number of Montanans who have major depression. If that effort is successful, some people who have been eligible for the Mental Health Services Plan would shift to Medicaid.

“We are trying to keep people in their homes, out of jail and out of the Warm Springs State Hospital,” Kennedy said.

Area legislators also will be invited to tour the facilities in the coming weeks, Mettler and Kennedy said.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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