Signing L.D. 775 would expand and restore much-needed support services for people with mental illness.
By: Lori K. Garmlich – Special to the Press Herald
Everyone deserves access to the health care they need to live safe and stable lives in their own communities. That includes mental health services. But here in Maine, we are falling short of providing that access. Our mental health care system is fractured, causing some of our most vulnerable citizens to slip through the cracks. It’s a problem that has gotten worse, not better, in recent years.
In 2016, under then-Gov. Paul LePage, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services drastically cut eligibility to Section 17 community support services under MaineCare. These services – including community integrative case management, daily living supports and more, for folks with chronic and persistent mental health challenges – play a crucial role in the health and well-being of the people and families who depend on them. LePage’s cuts resulted in nearly 5,500 people losing the critically important services they rely on daily.
When individuals are unable to access these services, they are at increased risk of losing their housing, and becoming homeless or ending up in residential treatment facilities or, worse, incarcerated. They have been left struggling to fill the void when the services they depended on were eliminated. Additionally, facilities that had provided these and other services were forced to close when these changes were initially implemented. That has left those most in need without resources to lead independent lives. Aside from the needless and tragic human cost, these outcomes cost our state far more in terms of dollars.
My 30-year career as a social worker afforded me the opportunity to work for both state and municipal government as well as for various nonprofits throughout the state. We know that providing prevention-based support services necessary to keep people with chronic mental illness in their homes is not only the most cost-effective approach for our state, but also the best approach for Mainers. Leaving our fellow Mainers to fend for themselves until they are in crisis is wrong and ineffective. It is also an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars.
Two years ago, Maine lawmakers acted to right this wrong with a measure that passed in the Legislature, only to be vetoed by then-Gov. LePage. Unfortunately, the Legislature fell short of overriding his veto and the bill died, leaving some of our most vulnerable to continue struggling in uncertainty.
Despite that heart-wrenching setback, restoring community support services under MaineCare is just too important to give up on. That’s why we have kept advocating to restore the eligibility criteria under Section 17.
One of my top priorities has been to advocate for folks in need of these services, and my bill, L.D. 775, does just that. In its amended form, L.D. 775 requires that the DHHS update its rules to expand and restore services to those who have been left behind by the LePage-era policy changes. L.D. 775 received strong bipartisan support and was passed by the Legislature. Now it’s on the governor’s desk, awaiting to be signed into law.
The services that my bill would restore are efficient and effective. They are already proven to improve lives and make a real difference in our communities. It is time to fix this mistake.
Mental health care providers, housing advocates and local officials continue to speak out, as they have since the previous administration sought to dismantle our social safety net for vulnerable Mainers.
I hear almost daily from the people that my bill aims to help. These folks, who already struggle with mental health issues, have seen their symptoms exacerbated as this bill has not yet become law. The reality is that real people across our state are suffering.
Gov. Mills has the opportunity to finally make this right. I hope she will reverse the failed mental health care policies of the LePage administration and end the turmoil that the ongoing lack of services has caused for too many Mainers. That means signing L.D. 775 into law.
Lori K. Gramlich, a Democratic state representative from Old Orchard Beach, is a licensed master social worker and adjunct faculty at the University of Southern Maine School of Social Work.
This article appears in the Portland Press Herald.