HOLLIDAYSBURG — Funding cuts to mental health services have transformed Blair County Jail into the largest mental health treatment facility in the county, Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb said Thursday.
Calling for increased public funding for mental health services, Erb spoke of local trickle-down effects after years of stable funding and reductions in funding for mental health services.
“We see the devastating adverse effects here in Blair County every day,” said Erbe. “You need look no further than the steady increase in incarcerations of individuals with untreated behavioral health issues that has led to our jail becoming the largest mental health treatment center in the county.”
“It goes without saying,” Erb added, “Our county jail is ill-equipped and understaffed to be the largest mental health treatment facility.”
Erb also named UPMC Altoona’s emergency department as another victim of mental health funding cuts.
He spoke of the highly publicized overcrowded conditions of the ministry which were “severely exacerbated due to lack of alternative treatment and diversion for people with mental health issues”.
The commissioners’ comments surfaced Thursday during what is supposed to be a six-week effort to draw attention to legislative priorities and funding needs identified by the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.
This association, which represents and lobbies on behalf of county governments, has identified funding for mental health as its top priority for 2022.
“I cannot overstate the need and urgency to increase state support for county mental health services to avoid the collapse of a vital part of the Commonwealth mental health system,” said Erbe.
Last week, Erb and fellow commissioners Laura Burke and Amy Webster passed a proclamation marking May as Mental Health Awareness Month. He called for a commitment to greater awareness and understanding of mental health issues and services.
Burke, at last week’s meeting, spoke about the need for state lawmakers to restore $84 million in mental health funding that was cut in 2012.
Erb acknowledged that Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2022-23 budget includes an additional $36.6 million for mental health services, which he says could bring funding levels back to two-thirds of what they were before. 11 years ago.
“Although this does not fully meet the need”, Erbe said, “I applaud Governor Wolf’s efforts and ask our state legislators to support this increase.”
Erb also called on state lawmakers to preserve the Behavioral HealthChoices program allowing counties, including Blair, to administer local mental health services for Medicaid-eligible residents.
Through Blair HealthChoices, arrangements have been made to staff the county jail with a full-time forensic mental health case manager.
It’s a perfect example of the added value the HealthChoices program brings to Blair County government, Erb said.
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 814-946-7456.