News about the Mental Health Services Act

Some good news emerged this week when the Sacramento Bee revealed California state Senator Darrell Steinberg called for an audit of funding generated by California’s Proposition 63. Proposition 63, also known as the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), was passed by voters in 2004. The MHSA imposes a 1% tax on individuals who earn over $1 million a year. The money generated by this tax goes to fund a huge range of mental health services, from prevention and early intervention to community services and supports to individuals who have been diagnosed with more serious or persistent mental illnesses.  The MHSA took in twice as much as was anticipated in the first two years of its existence, over a billion dollars a year.  When the economic crisis hit, the MHSA suffered, but still takes in well over $500 million every year.

So, why does CAI care about the MHSA?

The MHSA was of particular interest to CAI because not only did it carve out funding specifically for children, it carved out funding specifically for “transition age youth.” Transition age youth are defined in the MHSA as youth who are between the ages of 16 and 25. For several years, CAI has focused a great deal of advocacy and attention around issues relating to transition age foster youth and CAI believes transition age foster youth, specifically, should be a priority for MHSA funds for two reasons:

  1. Studies demonstrate that transition age foster youth experience mental health issues at a rate far higher than their peers who have no history of foster care. Each of these young people has survived traumatic events that most adults cannot begin to fathom. They have been forcibly removed from their families and often bounced from placement to placement at a very young age, and though it was for their own safety and protection, it was through no fault of their own and often they have little or no control over these events that very profoundly impact their lives.
  2. Foster youth are our children, literally. The state (that’s us) assumes parental responsibility for these youth when they are removed from their homes. Thus, we have a special duty to ensure their well-being. This includes ensuring that they have access to mental health services appropriate to prepare them to live independently after foster care.

Because of the potential of the MHSA to greatly benefit transition age foster youth, CAI released a report in 2010 which examined how, exactly, the counties were using MHSA funding to benefit foster youth.  The results were abysmal. CAI found that counties were not prioritizing transition age foster youth as they should.  In our report, CAI took note of some of the same issues that have now led to Senator Steinberg’s call for an audit of the MHSA funds.

In the years since CAI released its report, there have been glimmers of hope, however we have also seen worrisome trends. For example, the state government has “borrowed” from the MHSA to help balance the budget. This, in spite of the fact that the MHSA contains a non-supplantation clause – a provision that  basically says that the money generated by the MHSA must be used for the purposes outlined in the MHSA and cannot be borrowed by the general fund or used to backfill programs, already in existence, so that the state can divert money elsewhere.   Additionally, some county plans contain programs that are questionable uses of MHSA funding.

CAI is currently in the process of conducting research for a follow-up report, and we will watch the developments related to Senator Steinberg’s call for an audit with interest.

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