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Spend Now, Save Later

Owens gets the message on mental health funding

Daily Camera Editorial

Someone has been whispering in Gov. Bill Owens’ ear about the humanitarian and fiscal benefits of funding mental health programs. To his credit, he’s listening.

In a move that is particularly gratifying to mental health advocates, given Owens’ previous reluctance to take up their cause and Colorado’s current budget shortfall, the Governor on Monday unveiled a proposed $13.2 billion budget for 2002-2003 that includes nearly $300 million in spending on mental health.

Until now, mental health hasn’t been a priority for the Owens administration. Some advocates even say he more or less dismissed the notion that proactive spending on the mentally ill can save taxpayers money in the long run, by keeping people out of the criminal justice system and jail.

That idea is not just propaganda from another interest group trying to squeeze money out of the state. In 1996, about 17 percent of inmates at the Boulder County Jail were diagnosed with some form of mental illness; in 1999, that number had risen to 31 percent. Continual cuts to state mental health funding have contributed to a growing problem.

Results from a new, innovative Boulder County program bolster the argument that spending today – not even in huge amounts – can save money and improve the lives of those with brain disorders, who tragically often wind up in trouble only because they don’t have access to needed services.

The Partnership for Active Community Engagement coordinates efforts by the courts, the county’s mental health center, the probation department, sheriff’s department and community corrections, placing representatives from each in a single location, where mental health consumers can do “one-stop shopping.”

The PACE staff includes a full-time probation officer, a part-time psychologist, a substance-abuse counselor, a case manager to assist with employment, housing and relationships, and a psychiatrist for three hours a week.

The objective of PACE, which currently operates on a $130,000 grant from the state Division of Criminal Justice, is to reduce the amount of time clients spend behind bars. It’s working: The 47 people in the program spent a collect 4,200 days in jail in 1999, the year before PACE was created; in 2000, they spent just 300 days in jail.

That’s a reduction of 73 percent, and it means taxpayers spent that much less on jailing people who can be productive citizens with the proper treatment, supervision, coordination – and human concern.

Gov. Owens’ proposed 8.6 percent spending increase reflects his awareness of such benefits. It’s a much-needed first step in regaining funding lost over the last two decades. Most of the proposed funding for 2002-2003 would go toward staffing needs at the state’s two mental hospitals, in Pueblo and Fort Morgan, and not for community programs such as PACE. However, the proposal would grant a 1 percent cost-of-living increase to county programs.

One percent isn’t much; more is needed. But when budget cuts have become an annual challenge, even the tiniest increase is welcome – particularly this year, when many other state programs are going to be taking a hit.

But perhaps more than for the money itself, we’re grateful for Gov. Owens’ leadership on the issue. In prioritizing mental health spending, he’s sending a strong message that Colorado cares about its mentally ill citizens, the vast majority of whom can live productive lives with the right help. Whatever the merits of his proposed budget in its entirety, on this issue he deserves high praise.

November 11, 2001 Boulder Daily Camera Editorial
Reprinted with permission of the Boulder Daily Camera

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