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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Democrats propose $20 million for Montana's struggling behavioral health system

Montana Democrats are proposing an immediate infusion of $20 million into the state’s behavioral health system, saying it's on the brink of collapse.

Rep. Ed Stafman, a Democrat from Bozeman, said he would have the money distributed tomorrow if he could.

“I can’t emphasize enough what dire situation we have with our mental health system, both adult and children,” Stafman said.

Lawmakers are debating how much to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for health care providers this session, after a study found providers were underpaid by tens of millions of dollars. But Stafman says providers can’t wait until next fiscal year, that they need help now.

Stafman is carrying House Bill 248, which would fully fund the study’s recommended rate increase for fiscal year 2023 with the state’s $2 billion surplus. It would go into effect as soon as the governor signed it.

The Montana Medical Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness Montana chapter, Benefis Health System and Shodair Children’s Hospital all spoke in support.

No one spoke in opposition, but some lawmakers voiced concern about how to limit the spending and whether the levers of government could work fast enough for the funds to make a difference.

What started with budget cuts in 2017 worsened due to the pandemic and workforce shortage, leading to a significant decrease in behavioral health services.

According to the state health department, Montana lost 70 therapeutic group home beds for youth in 2022 alone.

Gov. Greg Gianforte has proposed a budget that would fill about a third of the identified provider pay gap along with an additional $25 million in one-time-only stabilization funds for the next biennium.

The goal of Stafman’s bill is to begin distributing funds no later than May 15. Stafman says the state likely wouldn’t use the full $20 million allocation because a portion should come from federal match dollars. The representative says he plans to bring a second bill later on that would provide immediate funds to nursing homes and long-term care facilities around the state.

Shaylee began covering state government and politics for Montana Public Radio in August 2020. Originally from Belgrade, Montana, she graduated from the University of Montana’s journalism program and previously worked as a reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and UM’s Legislative News Service. Please share tips, questions and concerns by emailing shaylee.ragar@mso.umt.edu.