Gotham Gazette: Paige Pierce: With Youth Suicide Rates Rising in New York, Now’s Not the Time to Cut State Funding for Mental Health Treatment


December 23, 2019

Rates of youth suicide are climbing across the country. New York State, where youth suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents, is no exception. With adequate investment in mental health and substance use services for children and adolescents, many of these deaths could be prevented. Yet, New York is planning to further reduce access to these kind of behavioral health services for children, even as more than half of children across the state with a mental or behavioral health condition do not receive the treatment they need.

At the end of 2019, New York State plans to cut reimbursement rates for behavioral health services for Medicaid-eligible children and families offered under Children and Family Treatment and Support Services. These critical and sometimes life-saving services include community psychiatric supports and treatment, family peer support services, crisis intervention, rehabilitation from substance use, and more.

At a time when children and families are chronically underserved and unable to access needed mental health treatment options, the state must place an immediate moratorium on any cuts to children’s behavioral health services to ensure they can receive the high-quality care they need and are legally entitled to.

Under federal and state law, commercial insurance companies and Medicaid programs must provide mental health and substance use benefits that are equal to coverage for physical medical treatments. But the reality looks far different for New York children and families.

In the 2016-2017 school year, roughly half of children in New York State with a mental or behavioral condition who needed treatment or counseling did not receive it. One study found that 55.1% of youth with major depression did not receive any mental health services in New York.

These numbers are less surprising when you consider that for every 10,000 children in New York, there are only two child psychiatrists. In rural areas, that number is often zero.

There simply aren’t enough trained medical professionals or public investments to meet the need, in part due to low pay for staff and the subsequent issues of high turnover and recruitment challenges.

When an overworked staff member quits or an agency is forced to no longer offer a service, it is children and families who suffer.

What do we do? Where do we go? The state must answer these questions and one more: how can we justify moving forward with these cuts while our children and family suffer? We are talking about an entire generation of our most vulnerable children who won’t get the help they need.

The data alone makes this clear. But in our work at Families Together in New York State, we see the individual children and families behind each statistic.

We see school counselors and social workers without the resources to meet the mental health needs of their students. We see students unnecessarily hospitalized or pushed into the juvenile justice or child welfare systems because they did not get the care they needed when they needed it. We see families struggle to find the quality services their children need to thrive.

As part of the rollout of Children and Family Treatment and Support Services (CFTSS) in 2019, the state estimated that 200,000 children would be eligible to receive behavioral health services under the program. However, only 7,800 children are currently receiving CFTSS, which is less than 5 percent of eligible children.

This under-enrollment is due to a number of factors, including under investment and a delay in start-up funds, which lead to issues like entire regions of the state lacking a designated provider of any of these services and families traveling several hours just to get an assessment. The bottom line is that we are not reaching nearly the number of children the state promised to serve, and the state is about to move ahead with its plan to reduce rates for these services.

Reducing access to mental health care services at a time like this moves New York State in the wrong direction for children’s mental health. That’s why Families Together is one of 40 leading behavioral health providers and child advocacy organizations across the state calling on Governor Cuomo to place an immediate moratorium on all cuts to behavioral health care for children. The current reimbursement rates for CFTSS services must be maintained to ensure children and families can receive the quality mental health care they need.

Mental health is a right for every child. New York State can and must do better for the children and families struggling to find adequate, high-quality mental health and substance use services. With the wellbeing and safety of our youth in the balance, we ask that the state do its part and stop these cuts.

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