California Assembly Health Committee members unanimously passed the Behavioral Health Services Act through Senate Bill 326 during their meeting last month, despite strong opposition from meeting attendees. The bill aims to address the remaining gaps within behavioral healthcare services, and it will be up for a public vote during the March 5th statewide primary election.
“Some of the key pieces in this bill relate to the rethinking of the Mental Health Services Act, and some key pieces related to rethinking behavioral health at the community level generally, and the planning process.”
— Michelle Baass, director of California’s Department of Health Care Services (DHCS)
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If voters approve SB 326, the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) would be recast as the Behavioral Health Services Act. It would also expand MHSA by incorporating the treatment of substance use disorders, alter the county planning process, and expand services for counties and the state to use funds.
If approved, SB 326 would alter the distribution of MHSA dollars, which includes allocating up to $36 million to the department for behavioral health workforce funding. The bill would also allow for DHCS to revise and develop documentation standards for individual service plans. It would also revise the contracting process, which will allow the department to temporarily withhold funds or provide monetary sanctions on a noncompliant county behavioral health department.
Matt Lege, government relations advocate for SEIU California, spoke in support of SB 326.
“SEIU supports SB 326 because we believe in a holistic, compassionate approach to care, with a focus on equity, and we believe this proposal makes a good start,” Lege said.
Lege added that the behavioral health workforce needs to be buffed up during an ongoing nationwide shortage in order to be successful with SB 326. This will only happen if improvements are made to recruitment, training, and retention of the workforce, Lege said, citing that frontline workers also need an increase in wages.
Numerous Californians spoke in opposition of SB 326, including Tiffany Elliott, from the Painted Brain in Los Angeles and a member of the Orange County board of supervisors. A group of individuals wore neon-colored shirts with “NO ON SB 326 SAVE THE MHSA” written on them. Advocates from Disability Rights California were also present.
Disability Rights California recently provided a statement of opposition to the bill, citing that SB 326 was “drafted without the meaningful involvement of mental health consumers, peers, providers, and other key stakeholders that this bill significantly impacts.”
The disability advocacy organization stated that the bill would harshly slash MHSA funds that are meant to be used for voluntary, community-based services, thus eliminating high-demand mental health services. Disability Rights California said impacted programs under SB 326 include outpatient services, crisis response, outreach and early intervention, and prevention programs.
If approved, the bill would require counties to establish and administer a program that provides housing interventions and a “low-rent housing project.” SB 326 would also allow the transfer of up to $140 million from MHSA funds to the Supportive Housing Program subaccount annually.
The diversion of funds from behavioral healthcare towards housing was a primary concern for community members there because it will not solve homelessness, but rather worsen the state of behavioral health in California, they said.
“The unhoused community needs permanent, affordable, supportive housing—homes—not beds in psychiatric facilities. The loss of MHSA funding will deprioritize our historically underserved, unserved, and inappropriately served BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities by dramatically reducing funding for much-needed mental health services.”
— Disability Rights California
Although Assemblymember Akilah Weber (D-San Diego) voted for the initiative during the meeting, she too voiced concerns with the bill.
“We don’t want to have to go back in a year, two years, three years, and realize that we rushed a process just to get something done,” Weber said.
Weber said it seems like those who are most impacted—like patients and counties—haven’t been included when making important decisions. She also said she is concerned about funding since the current funding stream is volatile, and would like to view financial recommendations from the governor. Weber said there isn’t realistically enough funding currently available and that the bill will ask behavioral health professionals, among others, to do more work with less funding and resources.
“Taking money from behavioral health to deal with our housing and homelessness crisis is not really the answer.”