Commissioners vote against resolution on mental health funding cuts by the N.C. General Assembly

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Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer

Vaya Health has approached seven counties in Western North Carolina pleading with them to pass a resolution to send to the state urging state leaders to restore funding for vital mental health funding. Of those seven counties, six counties passed the resolution. Last week, in a split vote, Macon County Commissioners were the first and only board to vote against the resolution. 

Commission Chair Jim Tate was the first to speak out against the resolution, citing that while he supported the intent of the resolution, he believed the wording was too harsh at times. Commissioners Karl Gillespie and Paul Higdon also voted no on the resolution, but at the time of the commissioners meeting, did not speak as to why they were opposed to its passage. Commissioners Ronnie Beale and Gary Shields voted in support of the resolution.

Shelly Foreman with Vaya Health was in attendance at the meeting and even stated that she would be agreeable to change whatever wording Tate was concerned with, but her offer did not solicit a response from the board and the vote stood. 

The North Carolina General Assembly’s budget that was passed by the House of Representatives in a controversial override vote on Sept. 11 proposes cutting millions of dollars in mental health funding across the state. 

Vaya Health serves as the regional agency responsible for distributing state funds to agencies in Western North Carolina who provide mental health and substance abuse services. The budget, which was vetoed by the governor but overridden by the House and now sits in the Senate, could cut $9 million over the next budget year. 

The resolution says that Vaya Health is responsible for providing those services to 270,000 Medicaid-covered and uninsured individuals across the 22 Western North Carolina counties. Vaya Health has already reinvested  $18.5 million of its Medicaid savings in a broad array of initiatives designed directly to address the needs of citizens in Macon County. 

The state’s funding for behavioral health has already been cut by more than $458 million statewide over the past four years, with $48 million in cuts in single-stream funding to Vaya specifically.

Although he did not give an explanation as to why he voted no during the meeting, in a follow up email, Commissioner Karl Gillespie stated that he believed the resolution would do more harm than good. 

“Long answer short, this is an issue that certainly needs to be addressed and I feel that our legislative representatives are already fully aware of that,” said Gillespie. “While the resolution was well meaning, I felt like the tone of the resolution was not appropriate, therefore I did not support it as it had the potential to do more harm than good.”

Gillespie’s reference that state representatives are “already fully aware” of the issue comes after Rep. Kevin Corbin and Rep. Josh Dobson spoke to Macon County leaders earlier this month about the funding cuts and confirmed plans to address it. 

“It is one of my few regrets with this budget,” Dobson said while meeting with local leaders in Macon County. “I will just be honest, I missed it. There are so many moving parts of the budget and I honestly just missed this. I didn’t realize it until Kevin [Corbin] brought it to my attention.” 

Rep. Corbin did, in fact, inform Dobson of the cuts and the impact they would have locally. And how did Rep. Corbin learn about the cuts to Vaya Health funding? 

“I actually only learned about the cuts to Vaya Health after commissioners in Cherokee County called me when they were considering the resolution,” said Rep. Corbin. “After I read the resolution and confirmed the information in it was accurate, I contacted Rep. Dobson to get it fixed. I told Cherokee County I had no problem with the resolution and I wouldn’t have had a problem if Macon County approved it either.”

Beale, who made the motion to pass the resolution, said the board didn’t support the resolution because it was “too political.” 

Beale also said that passing the resolution was important to ensure that the funding is restored. While Tate and Gillespie stated that they both believe the funding should be restored, they believe state leaders are working to address the issue, Beale noted that so far, nothing has been presented to restore funding. Continuing to pass such resolutions and remind the state of the devastating impact the cuts will have, not just for Macon County, but for all of WNC, is important, he said. 

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