Committees agree to expand mental health funding

Members of legislative money committees Friday agreed to increase the budgets for Mental Health and Developmental Services by nearly 40 percent - most of it already in Gov. Kenny Guinn's proposed budget.

The program would add more than $133 million in general fund money and $144.8 million total to the existing two-year budget, dramatically improving services in a long list of programs Guinn said have fallen desperately behind over the years.

Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said the increases go a long way to fix damage caused to division programs in 1991 when a recession forced the state to chop back agency budgets. A disproportionate share of those cuts were made in mental health programs and advocates have complained for a decade that little has been done to restore the programs since.

"We balanced the budget on the backs of people with mental illness and the severely retarded," said Leslie.

Friday, she said, was "probably my happiest day in the Legislature."

Many of the motions to increase funding for different programs were made by Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, who said he was convinced MHDS needed the money to provide services not only to growing numbers of patients in Reno and Las Vegas but the rural parts of the state.

Division Administrator Dr. Carlos Brandenburg thanked the joint Senate Finance-Assembly Ways and Means subcommittee for "taking us to the next level in providing services for those who can't help themselves." He said after the meeting this budget, following the 32 percent increase his budgets received two years ago, will not only help catch up on long-underfunded programs but handle the dramatic caseload increases his agency is seeing.

Altogether, the spending plan totals $358 million in general fund money and more than $512 million for the biennium.

The governor's recommended budget predicts a total caseload increase of more than 9,400 clients in medication clinics, residential placements, outpatient counseling, ambulatory services and psychosocial rehabilitation. And it provides a total of 159 additional employees to handle that growth at a cost of nearly $27 million over the biennium.

Brandenburg said the budget contains not only increases for rising numbers of clients but increases for different providers throughout the division's programs.

A large share of the total increase is in operating and personnel costs at the new psychiatric hospital nearing completion in Southern Nevada. That facility will have a total of 217 beds when completed. The operating cost of that new facility will be $19.1 million this biennium - nearly all of that in 2007 since the facility won't open until the end of fiscal 2006.

The budget adds more than $13 million to cover inflation in the cost of mental health prescriptions, creates a psychiatric residency program in Southern Nevada to match the one in the north and provides two-grade - 10 percent - pay raises to all nursing personnel in the division.

One of the most dramatic improvements, however, is in the services provided to rural Nevada's severely emotionally disturbed children. Adding 44 new staff to that program will reduce caseloads for therapists and workers from more than 70 apiece to 35 - the same ratio already in effect in Las Vegas and Reno. The total cost will come to about $2 million this biennium and more than $1.4 million each year after that.

"Severely disturbed kids have waited absolutely too long in this state," said Leslie.

"I don't think we want to see these people on a waiting list," said Raggio in making the motion to fund the improvements. "I didn't know we had so many of these children in the rural areas."

Nevada's three developmental services centers, High Sierra in Reno, Desert in Southern Nevada and the Rural Regional Center, were funded for a total of 644 additional clients over the biennium - an added cost of some $9.9 million over the biennium.

The budgets were approved by the joint subcommittee but must still be approved by the whole Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means committees. Despite objections by a few members of each of those panels, the final Mental Health, Developmental Services budget package isn't expected to suffer any major cuts.

n Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at or 687-8750.


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