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Washington state expands budget for behavioral health care

Over the next two years, about half-a-billion additional dollars will be allocated to improve behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment programs.

SEATTLE — Washington state is expanding its budget for behavioral health. Over the next two years, about half-a-billion additional dollars will be allocated to improve behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment programs throughout the state.

This includes money earmarked to enhance foster care programs, early learning, and connect kids from the juvenile justice system to mental health support.

Retired State Representative for the 32nd District and current MultiCare Behavioral Health Foundation Board Member, Ruth Kagi, joined KING 5 to talk about the implications of the state's behavioral health care expansion.

Need for behavioral health care on the rise in Washington 

For nearly a decade, doctors, nurses and behavioral health counselors noted year-over-year increases in demand for mental health crisis care, most specifically among young people. The situation was at community-crisis level before the pandemic began.

Since the pandemic began Washington state has experienced:

“The system we have now is fragmented, underfunded, and facing significant workforce issues,” said Kagi. “The state cut funds for behavioral health during the Great Recession. The money wasn’t put back into the budget. So, when the pandemic hit, there was a big need for more resources.”

House Bill 1477 establishes centralized mental health crisis resources for all Washington state residents. Kagi said this is especially important because it will help unify response for anyone in Washington state experiencing a mental health crisis. 

The mental health crisis response operation will offer a 988-phone number. This way, someone experiencing a mental health crisis, or their family and/or friends, can call a crisis-response counselor for help as an alternative or second resource to 911.

RELATED: Washington launching 988 hotline for mental health emergencies

House Bill 1295 connects kids from juvenile detention programs to a number of resources designed to help them graduate from high school by creating more stability in their lives.

What behavioral health funding means – the short & long-term 

Behavioral health funding means more resources for more people who need help. Kagi said there are near-term, mid-term, and long-term considerations.

In the near-term, there are a number of established mental health and substance use disorder treatment programs that will get a shot in the arm from the additional money. Some programs that could benefit include:

In the mid-range, the state will invest $500,000 over the next two years in childcare. The state is also expanding programs for new parents, specifically mothers, with services like home visits, extended maternal support, and connections to community behavioral health care providers.

For the long-term, there is a shortage of behavioral health professionals. Washington state needs 400 – 600 more counselors to meet the growing need for behavioral health care. To gain counselors, the state must put educational training in reach for more students.

RELATED: A pandemic within a pandemic: Kids battling mental health crisis during COVID-19

Kagi said the state also needs counselors who possess cultural competency and reflect our diverse community. 

In an effort to expand and diversify the behavioral health workforce, the state is earmarking funds for a training hospital, more behavioral health programs at 12 Washington universities, and is using its dollars for scholarships, grants, and loan forgiveness for behavioral health students.

Couple this with the recent announcement by the Ballmer Group of a $38 million gift to fund behavioral health workforce development, and Kagi said hope for long-term behavioral health care solutions is no longer just a dream. The longtime lawmaker applauds the state for finally taking behavioral health seriously and said citizens will benefit as a result.