COVID-19 Budget Cuts Could Impact Mental Health Funding

Jun 15, 2020, 8:02 PM | Updated: Jun 16, 2020, 11:19 am

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – COVID-19 has impacted our economy in ways we never would have imagined.  Several important mental health bills the passed in March could be on the chopping block.

Governor Gary Herbert will call a special legislative session to decide how to cut the 2021 budget due to shortfalls created by the pandemic which led to the closing of the Utah economy.

Charlie’s Bill

Charlie Ellis will be looking at the fate of mental health legislation. KSL TV told his story last February. He has battled bipolar disorder for more than 15 years. In December he found himself in the middle of a mental health crisis.

“All of a sudden, 10 police cars pulled up and lit up the parking lot,” Ellis said. “They put me in handcuffs and searched me.”

Ellis said he was sad, but not suicidal, and didn’t have any weapons with him. He said he was ordered out of the car.

“If I didn’t cooperate or anything, they would taser me,” he said.

Charlie was taken to the hospital and discharged only 30 minutes later when medical professionals determined he was not in danger.

He left the hospital with a $4,500 bill and increased anxiety. That was why Charlie was thrilled when House Bill 32, Crisis Services Amendments, passed the legislative session this year in March.

“Then seeing the governor sign it was just amazing,” Charlie said.

Representative Steve Eliason called it Charlie’s Bill. The new law would fund additional mobile crisis outreach teams  which Eliason says are like ambulances without flashing lights and sirens, equipped with a licensed social clinical worker.

They are more than just crisis receiving centers.

“These would be 24/7, 365 (day) facilities, no appointment necessary,” Eliason said.

They are an attractive alternative to jail or costly emergency rooms that help someone in a mental health crisis.

“Simply putting them to jail, often just exacerbates that person’s anxiety,” Eliason told KSL.

Funding At Risk Due To COVID-19

Today, the law is on the line.

“We haven’t come this far to only come this far,” Eliason said.

He compared the journey to summiting Mt. Everest.

“We have this great accomplishment, and we might not be able to make it back down,” he said.

He said Utahns need mental health resources now more than ever.

“The mental health issues that accompany a natural disaster like COVID-19 are very well documented. Some people call it the third wave that can last for years after this type of incident,” Eliason said. 

Charlie knows firsthand.

“(I) haven’t been able to hug my grandkids for months”, he said, or participate in his usual outlets like coaching little league. “It heightens the stress. It heightens the depression.” 

Eliason believes these proposed services could save lives.

“Statistics say that up to half of law enforcement involved shootings that result in a death involve an individual with a mental illness,” he said.

Eliason says someone with a mental illness is 16 times more likely to be involved in an officer involved shooting than somebody who doesn’t have a mental illness.

Charlie agreed.

“One life is too many,” he said. 

Eliason said now is the perfect time to strike a the roots of these mental health issues, “instead of just going back to the broken model of calling the police when there’s a mental health incident.”

“Move away from criminalizing mental illness, to getting the people the basic support, they need to address those issues,” Eliason said.

He said Utah will pay the costs related to mental illness one way or another, “Either we pay him through the healthcare system or through the criminal justice system.”

Looking Forward

That leaves Charlie fighting for his bill.

“We’ve got to find a way,” he said, so others can get the help he never did.

Eliason said one in five Americans has a diagnosable mental illness.

He added, “We need to continue talking about it. We need to continue putting our money where our mouth is.”

Charlie said Utah’s future is at stake.

“Our children and our children’s children,” he said. “We can’t put it off until tomorrow.” 

Without funding, the piloted program at the Davis Receiving Center will have to close its doors by the end of the year.

Salt Lake, Utah, and Washington Counties had also hoped to build receiving centers, which would give 80% of the state access to these resources.

“To walk that back now would be very difficult,” Eliason said.

State legislators will meet Thursday and Friday to decide where they can afford to make cuts in the budget.

KSL 5 TV Live

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COVID-19 Budget Cuts Could Impact Mental Health Funding