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Editorial: State Legislature should address funding concerns for mental health bill

By Editorial Board

September 29, 2016 1:35 am

Good intentions aren’t sufficient reason to push a flawed policy into law.

Last week, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed Assembly Bill 2017, which would have expanded mental health care funding for California college campuses, because it did not specify an amount or source of funding for the program.

While some student leaders are petitioning the legislature to overturn the governor’s veto, it’s clear that passing the bill in its current form would be ineffective. Rather, amending the bill during the next legislative session to address some of the governor’s concerns would improve the program’s chances of properly serving the students it’s meant to help.

Had Brown signed AB 2017, the bill would have created a grant program called the College Mental Health Services Program, which would have provided funds to campus mental health programs throughout California’s public colleges, including the University of California. Each campus would have had to match the grant’s funds dollar-for-dollar to receive up to $5 million.

The bill comes at a time when mental health is an incredibly important issue on college campuses across the nation. Students increasingly report having anxiety or depression, and according to a 2015 survey done by the American College Health Association, 36.1 percent of students felt so depressed it was difficult to function, and 58.6 percent felt overwhelming anxiety within the year prior.

However, the supply of mental health resources has not matched the increasing demand. Just last year, UCLA Counseling and Psychological Services reduced students’ maximum number of yearly visits from 10 to six. Without additional funding, it is inevitable that vital mental health care services will become inaccessible to students.

The bill in its original draft called for the Department of Health Care Services and California Mental Health Services Authority to use $40 million in surplus funds to establish and sustain the grant program. However, the state Senate amended the bill to remove the upper limit on funding and to stipulate that just the Department of Health Care Services will run the grant program.

Reversing these amendments would be one way to address Brown’s concerns regarding the bill’s vague funding source and structure – MHSA generates funds for mental health services across the state through a 1 percent income tax on those making more than $1 million. While the need for mental health resources may exceed the $40 million funding limit in the years ahead, we cannot expect the state to fund a program with no spending cap. If necessary, the program should be able to re-negotiate its cap annually to compromise between students’ need and availability of the state funds.

The State Legislature has made a worthy and sincere effort to improve the quality and availability of mental health resources for California college students, but it cannot promise these resources without a plan.

Without ironing out the logistics behind the bill’s funding, no amount of petitioning or lobbying from students or assemblymembers will quell the uncertainty keeping it from becoming law.

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