Reps back-tracking to fix cuts to mental health

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Brittney Lofthouse – Contributing Writer

Local leaders across Western North Carolina (WNC) have been vocal about the state’s decision to cut funding to mental health services in the region since the General Assembly released the budget. 

The budget approved by the General Assembly, which was originally vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper, included a proposed $9 million funding cut which would dramatically impact Vaya Health, the public Local Management Entity/Managed Care Organization (LME/MCO) that is responsible for managing and overseeing publicly funded mental health/substance abuse/IDD services (intellectual and developmental disabilities) for more than a quarter-million residents in the 22-county Western North Carolina region. 

County governments across WNC have considered resolutions urging the state to reconsider. The resolution currently being considered in Macon 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 cuts in single-stream funding to Vaya specifically. 

Last Thursday, North Carolina House Representative Josh Dobson, who serves as the appropriation chair for the House finance committee noted that the cut to LMEs such as Vaya Health was an oversight and something he wants to see corrected as soon as possible. 

“It is one of my few regrets with this budget,” Dobson said while meeting with local leaders in Macon County last week. “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.” 

While looking at significant cuts to mental health, the state currently carries a $900 million budget surplus, something Macon County Commissioner Ronnie Beale addressed with Dobson. 

“You just can’t go around bragging about a $900 million surplus in the budget, at the same time you are drastically cutting mental health,” said Beale. 

Rep. Dobson said that once he was made aware of the devastating impact the cuts would have for mental health services in Macon County and throughout Western North Carolina, he immediately began the necessary steps to rectify the situation. 

New bills cannot be introduced into the legislature to address the cuts, so Dobson said the House is currently considering other ways to address the issue. According to Dobson, the language has already been written to return funding to LMEs such as Vaya and now all it is is a matter of how it will be addressed. Dobson said there are two options – add the language onto a conference report or add it as an amendment to an existing bill. 

While Governor Cooper vetoed the budget, the House of Representatives overturned the veto on Sept. 11. The next step is for the Senate to take up the matter of the veto, which will happen in the coming days as the Senate is back from a short break and back in session. 

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