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Florida Currently Missing Out on $128M Behavioral Health Funds

State leaders have yet to apply for millions in funding for mental health services made available through the American Rescue Plan Act. 2020 saw a 37 percent increase in statewide opioid overdoses.

(TNS) — Faced with “skyrocketing” mental health demands and a dramatic rise in opioid overdose deaths, Florida needs to apply for more than $128 million in federal funds that it has so far ignored, according to a nonpartisan advocacy group.

In a report released this week, analysts at the nonprofit Florida Policy Institute found that state leaders have yet to apply for behavioral health funds available under the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which became law last March. The report said the need is especially urgent given the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic and the impending launch of a nationwide three-digit suicide hotline — 988 — that will route callers in crisis to local response teams.

“Even before the pandemic, our state was struggling to meet the demand for behavioral health care services, with hundreds of thousands of people unable to access affordable mental health and substance use disorder treatment,” said Florida Policy Institute CEO Sadaf Knight. “The influx of American Rescue Plan Act dollars presents a crucial, time-limited opportunity for Florida lawmakers.”

The FPI report cites unprecedented demand created by the isolation, anxiety, grief and anger of the pandemic. In 2020 alone, the report said, more than 7,500 Floridians died from opioid overdoses, a 37% increase from 2019, and over 35,000 Florida children and teens were involuntarily institutionalized — arrested, transported, held for up to three days and subject to psychiatric exams under the state’s Baker Act.

The American Rescue Plan money will be disbursed starting in April. The funds are earmarked for mobile response teams that operate around the clock, sending mental health professionals to homes, schools and businesses to address children or adults in crisis, often preventing the need for hospitalization or arrests. The state already pays for 39 such teams, but the federal money would fuel a critically needed expansion, advocates said.

“You would think at this point, especially after what we’ve experienced in the past two years, that the state folks who make decisions about these things would want to point those dollars towards the people who need them most,” said Marni Stahlman, president and CEO of the Mental Health Association of Central Florida. “The impact has just been staggering. We’re seeing a lot of 11- to 18-year-olds ending up in emergency departments with self-harming behaviors.”

The federal program does require the state to spend a portion of its own budget to get the money, but the Florida Policy Institute analysis said the state’s existing $18.3 million annual investment in mobile response teams — part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, passed after the 2018 Parkland massacre — could be used to draw down over $100 million new federal dollars for the first three years and more than $28 million in subsequent years.

“This is really low-hanging fruit,” said attorney Anne Swerlick, an FPI senior policy analyst and the report’s author. “I mean, they’re already making this state investment, so it’s a very good deal. And Congress intended that. They realized that this is a time of increased need for behavioral health care services.”

Some 15 states already have applied for planning grants under the federal program just to figure out how best to use the funds. Florida was not among them, and the deadline for planning grants has passed. But that doesn’t preclude the state from applying for the mobile response team funding itself, Swerlick said.

But while state officials haven’t formally rejected the money, Swerlick said, they’ve given no indication that they intend to apply for it, either.

“It generally feeds into this theme of a complete lack of transparency around how federal COVID dollars are getting used,” she said.

Neither the Florida Department of Children and Families, which oversees youth mental health programs, nor the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration responded to questions on the issue.

Maria Bledsoe, CEO of Central Florida Cares, which manages state-funded substance abuse and mental health services for Brevard, Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties, said state money currently goes to four Central Florida mobile response teams targeting children and young adults up to age 25, although the team in Orange is mostly bankrolled by the county.

In addition, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and Orlando Police Department have their own crisis response teams.

“I highly support the expansion of mobile crisis teams across our region and across the state,” Bledsoe said. “The data shows the success record. We have seen a 95% reduction in diverting children from the hospitals, the crisis units and criminal justice involvement. That’s just us [in Central Florida]. And all others … across the state are seeing the same type of success.”

Mobile teams are expected to be a key part of the 988 national suicide hotline program, which is slated to go live on July 16. Calls will be routed through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, but states will be largely responsible for making it work, including building a response network, training staff and integrating 988 with other emergency services.

“When that hotline is activated, I think there’s going to be a giant thud” in Florida, Stahlman said. “There just isn’t the infrastructure to provide the help people need. We’re really up against it here to get something in place.”

©2022 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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