Gubernatorial candidates Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pledged support for mental health programs at a forum in Baltimore County yesterday, but both said budget constraints would limit resources for the strained system next year.
Townsend, a Democrat, and Ehrlich, a Republican, said they would not reduce Medicaid benefits that pay for mental health services, a tempting pot of money during the state's lean budget times.
But they refrained from specific pledges of new money for the state's network of mental health providers. Advocates say that 90,000 state residents are receiving treatment through a system designed for 50,000, and at least a dozen outpatient clinics have closed in the past year.
"We have a crisis," said Linda J. Raines, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Maryland.
About 12 hours after facing each other in the first televised debate of the gubernatorial campaign, Ehrlich and Townsend passed each other in a room at Martin's West in Woodlawn, where 400 people gathered for a forum sponsored by the Maryland Mental Health Coalition. Speaking separately, they answered prepared questions from a panel.
Townsend said that a 36-cents-a-pack cigarette tax increase she supports could help pay for mental health treatment, and that her prescription-drug program would provide some relief.
Townsend said she is committed to community-based treatment options, and said that if elected governor she would convene a summit that would examine, in part, housing options for mentally ill adults.
"What you have in Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is someone who is going to take these issues very seriously," she said. "This commitment is not born of this campaign."
Ehrlich said he would sign an executive order, possibly on his first day in office, so that parents of mentally ill children do not need to relinquish custody to obtain long-term treatment. Advocates say that one in four families in Maryland with hospitalized children faces such a decision.
He said that, with his congressional background, he thinks he could win more federal Medicaid money for state programs.
"Mental health is a primary job of the government in this day and age," Ehrlich said. "I believe I bring a great deal of credibility."
Carolyn C. Knight, president of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Maryland, said, "We heard promising things from both candidates."
Knight acknowledged that mental health issues are not at the top of the agendas of gubernatorial candidates, who campaign most actively on education - the issue shown by polls as the top concern of voters.
"If you have a child who is mentally ill, they won't benefit from an educational system, no matter how good it is," she said.