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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana's Mental Health Providers Still Feeling The Sting Of 2017 Budget Cuts

An woman holds a sign during a picket of Western Montana Mental Health Center in Missoula, Dec. 18, 2017, following state budget cuts to mental health services.
Olga Kreimer

Montana lawmakers met today to start setting the budget for programs that help people with mental illness or drug and alcohol use disorders.

State health department officials say in recent years the administration has increased Montanans’ access to mental health care with the help of Medicaid expansion.

Zoe Bernard is with the Department of Public Health and Human Services.

“We have been able to significantly increase access to mental health and substance use disorder treatment, and enhance and improve the continuum of prevention and recovery support services,” Bernard says.

According to DPHHS, more than 35,000 adults in Montana received mental health or substance use disorder services under Medicaid over the last year.

However, behavioral health advocates say there’s more to the story. They say programs are still struggling from the collapse of the 2017 state budget, when $49 million was cut from the Montana health department. Providers have said those cuts disrupted care for thousands of people across the state.

Mary Windecker represents around 30 providers with the Behavioral Health Alliance of Montana.

“Most of the agencies either drastically reduced their targeted case manager positions or closed their program completely.”  

She says while access to care may have increased in some urban areas of the state, rural areas are hurting.

“The rural areas are where we're seeing cuts to the substance use and mental health issues -- drastically.”

State health officials say some of the cut funds are now flowing back to care providers.

But industry advocates say the damage of the cuts lingers in lower staffing levels. Services that help people with mental health issues get day-to-day treatment in their communities are no longer offered.

Industry advocates are calling on the state to change the model for how it pays for mental health programs funded by Medicaid. They say the current method doesn’t provide the best treatment and it doesn’t always cover the cost of providing the care.

Officials with the state health department say they’ve met with providers to gather input on ways to improve the model for funding mental health care.

It’s unclear if or when those recommendations will become a part of the state’s system, although state officials say they are reviewing the proposals.

The legislative subcommittee reviewing the state’s mental health spending hasn’t yet scheduled a initial vote.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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