Gov. Nikki Haley asked lawmakers on Thursday to spend more money on mental health, saying it is her “hope and prayer that what happened in Connecticut is that those lives are not taken in vain.”
Haley proposed a $6.3 billion state budget on Thursday that includes an additional $11.3 million for the state Department of Mental Health. Haley proposed a $16.3 million increase for the department last year.
Last week’s horrific elementary school shooting at Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children and six adults were killed, has prompted a fierce national debate about how to prevent future tragedies. Some favor putting more restrictions on gun sales. Others say the country needs to focus more on treating mental illness.
Haley declined to comment on a proposed S.C. law that would let public school teachers carry guns in schools. Instead, she said South Carolina needs to spend more on mental-health care to prevent similar tragedies.
“Connecticut has one of strongest gun control measures in the country. But look at their mental-health system ... That’s what we all need to be talking about, the mental health side of things, not necessarily guns,” Haley said. “Anybody can get a gun. And, when bad people get guns, they are going to do what they want to do. No amount of gun control can stop someone from getting a gun when they want to get it. What we can do is control mental health in a way that we treat people.”
While Haley proposed increases for Mental Health, the added money would not make up for budget cuts at the agency in recent years.
Between 2008 and 2012, lawmakers cut Mental Health’s budget by 40 percent, or $70 million a year. It was the largest cut to any state-run mental health agency in the country, according to a study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“The Department of Mental Health is still seeing the same number of people that they saw back in 2008 when they were flush with funding. The problem is since the budget cuts they have not been able to see them as often,” said Bill Lindsey, director of the S.C. chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
In June, lawmakers approved an $18.7 million increase for Mental Health for the budget year that ends June 30, 2013. This year, most of Haley’s proposed increase – about $8 million of the $11.4 million hike – would replace one-time money the department has been using to balance its budget.
But Haley’s proposal also would expand access to psychiatrists in rural emergency rooms. With the help of a Duke Endowment grant, Mental Health has been using video conferencing to conduct psychiatric consultations in rural hospitals. That grant is running out, and Haley proposes giving the program $500,000 to keep it going.
“It has made a difference in length of stays and overall positive outcomes for the hospital and the patients,” said Mark Binkley, general counsel for Mental Health.
Haley also wants to give an extra $1.4 million to Mental Health’s overcrowded Sexually Violent Predator Treatment program. That program detains people convicted of sex crimes who have completed their prison sentences but still are a danger to the community, according to a judge. The program is scheduled to move into a renovated wing of the maximum security Broad River Correctional Facility in January. But the program has seen its patients increase by 67 percent since 2008. Mental Health officials say the program will run out of space again by 2015.
“This is a time to say: You know what? We’ve put mental health off long enough,” Haley said Thursday. “When we came in (to office), it was bare-boned. And it is because, ‘There is always next year.’
“That’s what everybody does until a Connecticut happens,” Haley said. “It doesn’t take a Connecticut for me to know that there are people out there that need treatment, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure they are protected in that way.”
While Haley wants to spend more on mental health, she is steadfast in her opposition to expanding Medicaid, the federal-and-state health-insurance program for the poor and disabled. The Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, would make about 500,000 more people in South Carolina eligible for Medicaid. The federal government would spend about $3 billion for that expansion. But South Carolina would have to kick in an extra $1 billion by 2020, which Haley says the state cannot afford.
House Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-Calhoun, said he applauds Haley’s request for more money for Mental Health. But he said her budget proposal would shortchange the state’s existing Medicaid program, giving it a $150 million increase, $40 million less than the agency says it needs.
“Not only has she taken the position that she doesn’t want to add any additional Medicaid services (under the Affordable Care Act), her budget doesn’t even take care of the needs that her director has acknowledged that already are in existence,” he said.