HOLLIDAYSBURG — Funding cutbacks for mental health services have turned the Blair County Prison into the largest mental health treatment facility in the county, Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb said Thursday.
Calling for more state funding of mental health services, Erb spokes of local trickle-down effects after years of flat funding and funding cuts for mental health services.
“We see the devastating effects every day here in Blair County,” Erb said. “You need look no further than the steady increase in incarcerations of individuals suffering from untreated behavioral health conditions that have led to making our prison the largest mental health treatment facility in the county.”
“Needless to say,” Erb added, “our county prison is ill-equipped and staffed to be the largest mental health treatment facility.”
Erb also named UPMC Altoona’s emergency department as another victim of mental health funding cuts.
He spoke of the department’s well-publicized overcrowded conditions that have been “severely exacerbated because of the lack of alternative treatment and diversion for those suffering from mental health conditions.”
The commissioners’ comments surfaced Thursday during what is supposed to be a six-week effort to call attention to budget and funding needs identified by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
That association, which represents and lobbies on behalf of county governments, identified mental health funding as its top priority for 2022.
“I cannot overstate the necessity and urgency of increasing state support for county mental health services to stave off the collapse of a core part of the commonwealth’s mental health system,” Erb said.
Last week, Erb and fellow commissioners Laura Burke and Amy Webster adopted a proclamation marking May as Mental Health Awareness month. It called for a commitment toward a greater awareness and understanding of mental health issues and services.
Burke, at last week’s meeting, spoke of the need for state lawmakers to restore $84 million in mental health funding that was cut in 2012.
Erb acknowledged that Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2022-23 budget includes an additional $36.6 million for mental health services, which he said could bring funding levels back to two-thirds of what they were 11 years ago.
“While this doesn’t fully meet the need,” Erb said, “I applaud Governor Wolf’s efforts and ask our state legislators to support this increase.”
Erb also called upon state lawmakers to preserve the Behavioral HealthChoices program allowing counties, including Blair, to administer local mental health services for Medicaid-eligible residents.
Through Blair HealthChoices, arrangements were made to staff the county prison with a full-time mental health forensic case manager.
That’s a perfect example of the added value that the HealthChoices program brings to Blair County government, Erb said.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.