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Balancing Md.'s budget on the backs of the mentally ill

During our time together in the Maryland House of Delegates, we worked persistently to address the need for accessible services and adequate funding for the one in five Marylanders who need treatment for mental health and substance use disorders. As the former and current chairs of the public health subcommittee of the Health and Government Operations Committee, we know first-hand the importance of these services and the impact they have on individuals and families with behavioral health needs and the service providers who treat them.

That's why we were disappointed to see long-overdue funding for behavioral health slashed by the Board of Public Works earlier this month as its members seek to close a state budget gap. As experienced legislators, we understand the challenges facing Maryland as it adapts to decreased revenue projections, but we can't understand why the state would try to balance the budget on the backs of the more than the 160,000 Maryland children and adults who use and depend on the public mental health system.

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Behavioral health treatment is an important component of health care that serves our friends and neighbors with seemingly invisible illnesses. Most importantly, our behavioral health system works. It provides treatment and services to Marylanders who need help and allows them to live safe and fulfilling lives.

Demand for services is steadily increasing in Maryland, with the number of people using our public mental health system increasing 65 percent since the start of the "Great Recession." However, support for the service providers who give care and treatment is not keeping up. The current year budget included a modest rate increase for mental health providers as a result of legislation that passed unanimously in 2010. This was only the 6th such adjustment over the past 19 years and was long overdue. To see it cut in half at the Jan. 7th Board of Public Works meeting was devastating.

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Years of stagnant or reduced budgets have left service providers unprepared to meet the needs of the many Marylanders who need help. Staff turnover is extremely high in this demanding field. Mental health and substance use disorders can be treated, but only if those in need have access to proper services and treatment providers.

We can't afford to shut the door on some of Maryland's most vulnerable citizens. Where will our friends, family members, elderly, veterans and our children go when they need help? The recent cuts will likely drive more people to costly emergency room visits or worse, deny them the treatment they need altogether. We can, and must, do better.

As the former and incoming chairs of the public health subcommittee, we know the need to champion these issues remains strong. A new governor and nearly 70 new legislators begin their work in Annapolis this year with dozens of returning veteran lawmakers, and we urge them not to shut the door on Marylanders who need healing. Our friends, families and communities need your voice and your vote to continue our work to ensure a stable and reliable health care workforce to help the Marylanders who need it most.

We ask that the elected officials newly arrived in Annapolis help heal this community by keeping the doors to treatment for them securely open.

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James W. Hubbard is a former member of the House of Delegates, representing Prince George's County from 1992 through January, and a former chair of the public health subcommittee of the Health and Government Operations Committee. His email is james.w.hubbard@verizon.net. Joseline Peña-Melnyk is a member of the House of Delegates, representing Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties since 2007, and the new chair of the public health subcommittee of the Health and Government Operations Committee. Her email is joseline.pena.melnyk@house.state.md.us.

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