HHS Says Behavioral Health Will Become A Top Priority. $3 Billion In New Funding. Let’s Hope It’s Spent Wisely

(5-20-21) Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra announced this week that $3 billion in new funds will be distributed to states and territories for mental health and substance use services.

Behavioral Health will be an HHS priority.

It’s about time.

This massive influx of funds and making Behavioral Health a priority could lead to much needed improvements in our badly fractured system.

The $3 billion will be distributed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) through block grants to the states. It will be equally divided with $1.5 billion earmarked for “those with severe mental health conditions” and children with serious emotional disturbances – known respectively as SMIs and SEDs. The other $1.5 billion will flow into substance use disorder programs.

Based on the video above, there’s reason for optimism.

Ten percent of the SMI/SED funds will be aimed at expanding First Episode Psychosis programs when the chances of helping someone are at the highest. States will be asked to earmark 5% of the $1.5 billion on crisis services. Funds will be made available for states to link mental health and substance abuse services to the 9-8-8 hotline (read more here.) Some overview of how dollars will be spent can be gleamed from the video beginning at 10:30 and ending at 16.47.

HHS Sec. Becerra said he will prioritize behavioral health by establishing a Behavioral Health Coordinating Council (BHCC) inside his department whose goal will be to “facilitate collaborative, innovative, transparent, equitable, and action-oriented approaches to addressing HHH’s behavioral health agenda.”

This council will be composed of “senior leadership” within HHS and co-chaired by the Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use and the Assistant Secretary for Health.

Until the Senate confirms President Biden’s nominee, Dr. Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon, as the new Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse, acting Assistant Secretary Tom Coderre will co-chair the group.

In the video, acting Asst. Sec. Coderre disclosed that he is a person in long-term recovery. He explained, “which for me means that I have not used alcohol or drugs since May 15, 2003.” He added that during the past weekend, “I celebrated 18 years on this journey.” Hopefully, his personal experiences will help guide him on what programs are and aren’t effective.

Among the goals that acting Asst. Sec. Coderre discussed on the video is creating a system where those in need can get same day or next day appointments with mental health and drug abuse specialists nationwide and also expanding peer services.

It’s likely those will be priorities for Dr. Delphin-Rittmon too, but we’ll know better when she’s questioned during her confirmation hearing by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (You can check its membership and schedule here.) So far, no date has been set. Dr. Delphin-Rittmon currently serves as the Commissioner of the Connecticut State Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. It took the committee  eight months before it confirmed the last assistant secretary, Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz.

There has been no mention of how the new HHS Behavioral Health Coordinating Council will interact, if at all, with the Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee, that was established by Congress, to foster cooperation and coordination between HHS and other federal departments and agencies that fund programs dealing with addiction, SEDs and SMIs.

ISMICC, which I serve on as the parent representative, issued a report in December 13, 2017, that made 45 specific recommendations about how to improve our broken system. Unfortunately, half-way through the last administration, ISMICC was relegated to a back burner at SAMHSA and no one currently in charge, including acting Asst. Sec. Coderre, has shown any interest in bringing ISMICC out of its mothballed status.

The $3 billion will only make a lasting difference if the funds are spent to actually help solve the problems that plaque our system and serve as barriers to getting people help.

In the past, SAMHSA has been heavily criticized for squandering funds on ineffective, feel good, politically popular programs targeted so broadly that they have done little to help those in the most need.

Let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.

Here is HHS’s press release that includes links that will show how much your state could receive.

Let’s do our best to make certain these tax dollars are well spent.

HHS Announces $3 Billion in American Rescue Plan Funding for SAMHSA Block Grants to Address Addiction, Mental Health Crisis –HHS Secretary Becerra forms new Behavioral Health Coordinating Council

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is distributing $3 billion in American Rescue Plan funding — the largest aggregate amount of funding to date for its mental health and substance use block grant programs.

The Community Mental Health Services Block Grant (MHBG) Program and Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant Program (SABG) will disperse $1.5 billion each to states and territories (with the latter also awarding money to a tribe).

This follows the March announcement of supplemental funding of nearly $2.5 billion for these programs. SAMHSA, an operating division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has expedited federal funding to grantees to help communities grappling with mental health and substance use needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding economic crisis have been especially devastating for Black, American Indian, Alaska Native and Hispanic communities, who are experiencing a disproportionate number of COVID-19 infections and deaths as well as higher-than-average unemployment rates. Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) populations have experienced increased stigma and hate due to COVID-19 anti-Asian rhetoric, which is impacting the behavioral health of AANHPI communities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) preliminary data points to 90,000 overdose deaths for the 12 months ending last September – about 20,000 more than the same period the year before. CDC data also shows that American adults in June 2020 reported elevated levels of adverse mental health conditions, substance use, and suicidal ideation. The prevalence of symptoms of anxiety was approximately three times those reported in the second quarter of 2019, and prevalence of depression was approximately four times that reported in the second quarter of 2019.

Last week, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) released data highlighting health services received by millions of Medicaid and Children Health Insurance Program beneficiaries during the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency. Despite an overall rebound for most of these services, mental health utilization remains below pre-pandemic levels.

With the nation’s mental and substance use disorder needs squarely in focus, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra is establishing a new Behavioral Health Coordinating Council (BHCC). The Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use and the Assistant Secretary for Health will serve as the co-chairs of this coordinating body, which is comprised of senior leadership from across the Department. The BHCC’s primary goal is to facilitate collaborative, innovative, transparent, equitable, and action-oriented approaches to addressing the HHS’ behavioral health agenda.

“Behavioral health is a priority for the Department of Health and Human Services. The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the need to invest resources in our nation’s mental health and address the inequities that still exist around behavioral health care. That’s why we are making this historic investment in mental health and substance use services,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “In addition, this national problem calls for Department-wide coordination to address the issue. That’s why I am convening the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council to work across HHS to facilitate collaboration and strategic planning as we implement our behavioral health agenda.”

“Across America, we are seeing a startling rise in mental health and substance use disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Assistant Secretary for Health Dr. Rachel Levine. “We know multiple stressors during the pandemic – isolation, sickness, grief, job loss, food instability, and loss of routines – have devastated many Americans and presented the unprecedented behavioral health challenges across the nation. Addressing the COVID-19 mental and behavioral health impacts on vulnerable and disenfranchised populations are among the top priorities of the Biden-Harris Administration. Establishing a new Behavioral Health Coordinating Council will assure the right prioritization and guidelines are in place to provide pathways to prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery services.”

“The Biden-Harris Administration’s support through the American Rescue Plan funding will increase community-level supports for Americans who have been grappling with devastating emotional and mental challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Acting Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Tom Coderre. “Given the significant impact mental and substance use disorders can have on the lives of individuals, families and communities, the establishment of the BHCC provides a critical tool in addressing these issues in a collaborative and strategic way.”

The MHBG program enables states and territories to provide comprehensive community mental health services and address needs and gaps in existing treatment services for those with severe mental health conditions.

The SABG program allows states and territories to plan, implement and evaluate activities to prevent, treat and help more people recover from substance use disorder. This funding will also allow recipients to make investments in existing prevention, treatment and recovery infrastructure, promote support for providers and address unique local needs to deliver substance use disorder services.

Funding allocation tables can be viewed here:

People searching for treatment for mental or substance use disorders can find it by visiting https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov or by calling SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Reporters with questions should send inquiries to media@samhsa.hhs.gov.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.