The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

April 26, 2012

Anxiety over mental health overhaul

County officials voice concerns on how it will affect funding; worry change could worsen care

OTTUMWA — State Rep. Mary Gaskill is concerned about a mental health bill currently making its way through the Iowa Legislature. The bill, as of Wednesday, she said, could impact Wapello County’s bottom line when it comes to funding mental health services.

The Iowa House approved the measure on a 65-32 vote this week, returning it to the Iowa Senate, where a similar version has been approved.

Gaskill, D-Ottumwa, argues that more studies are needed before enacting such a significant overhaul of a large, complicated and expensive system. She noted that a statewide mental health system could worsen care in some counties where funding has been strong but improve it in other counties where funding has been minimal.

“What you are doing is picking winners and losers, and we are losers,” she said. “Our costs are going to go up.”

“What I’d like to see happen is to put off that freezing of the levy for a year and get some data on what happens,” she told the Courier on Wednesday. “And, I’d like to put off the regional [network] for at least a year or two of the minimum things.”

For those counties with problems, Gaskill said it’s easier for them to apply for money so they can get through the system.

“And they need to give us a year to get into the process,” she said. “We set the $48.47 as sort of an arbitrary number. Those below the number in the funding will get help from the state.”

But, Wapello County won’t get help and the majority of legislators said Wapello County has to go down to $48.47 and use the ending fund balance to cover some expenditures.

“We can use the ending fund balance, but in two years that’s gone. That’s why we’re upset,” Gaskill said. “We have to get this a year down the road and get things done before it’s fully implemented.”

The $48.47 is the mental health levy,  and it’s capped at that amount.

Gaskill also noted Wapello County leaders “feel they cannot generate enough to keep the system running past two years.”

Late Wednesday afternoon, Gaskill said she was disappointed by the talk of pulling $30 million from the education budget items — such as preschool — to help pay for mental health reform.

“I don’t think that’s right,” she said.

Marlys Breon-Drish oversees the Promise Center in downtown Ottumwa. On Wednesday, she said more than 450 people signed a petition at the Promise Center expressing concerns about the proposed legislation.

“People are concerned about [Wapello County],” she added.

Breon-Drish said the text on the petition reads as follows: “We, the undersigned are concerned citizens who urge our elected officials to let the property tax levy for mental health services be a local county decision.

“We have to reinstate the property tax level. The state can set a minimum,  but we need to keep our county level.

“I’m not sure anyone knows the impact of this reform bill as of yet,” she said.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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