Opinion: New York needs to put its money where its children are


July 14, 2022

By Alice Bufkin, CCC’s Associate Executive Director for Policy and Advocacy

New York is watching a crisis unfold as young people face a staggering undersupply of mental health services. Countless children across the state have to languish on waiting lists for treatment – sometimes for months.

The Capital Region in particular has seen kids in crisis sent as far as Rochester and Syracuse for care or get stranded in local emergency rooms. Worse off are the young people – disproportionately children of color – who are in desperate need of treatment but wind up in handcuffs rather than receiving the behavioral health services they need.

The pandemic has exposed rampant health inequities, and New York state is working hard to craft solutions. But chronic underinvestment in behavioral health systems across the state is leading to children being turned away from care.

Navigating youth into the supportive hands of trained mental health professionals and away from clogged hospitals or the criminal justice system has never felt more necessary. Too many families watch children suffer as they attempt to get them the help they need.

So now, more than ever, New York must invest in our youth mental health system.

New York has used its 1115 Medicaid Demonstration Waiver amendment – a process that allows states to strengthen their Medicaid programs – to request $13.25 billion from the federal government to tackle health inequities. While the request offers New York an unprecedented opportunity, the state’s plan includes almost no reference to children. Given that almost half of our state’s Medicaid population is under 20 years old, the state’s application must go further to prioritize the acute needs of our state’s youth.

The state is at an inflection point: Nearly 13,000 New York children have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19. Statewide, critical mental health screenings and access to services have declined, and rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicidal ideation among children are soaring. This is a trendline we can’t just stand by and watch. We cannot ask for a healthier, safer, and more equitable New York without strategic interventions that meet the needs of kids first.

Our state has an opportunity to invest in a continuum of behavioral supports, ranging from child and caregiver supports in pediatric settings to targeted supports for youth with co-occurring mental health, substance use, or developmental disabilities. With some programs seeing staffing vacancy rates of 30 to 40 percent, the state’s proposal should use a third of its $1.5 billion proposed funding directly for support and enhancements to the behavioral health workforce. With a focus on workforce investment, we can dramatically and quickly alter how kids get care.

The state can invest in workforce recruitment and retention strategies like loan forgiveness, student debt reduction, and the ability to apply on-the-job experience towards college credit. Investments in youth and family peers, often rooted in the communities they serve, will help address inequity and create better support systems for youth in crisis.

As we work to tackle health inequity, let’s also ensure that the proposed HEROs (Health Equity Regional Organizations) involve stakeholders representing children’s needs. We can avoid the copy-and-paste approach of using programs designed for adults for children by ensuring those with lived experiences have a seat at the table.

The work of addressing health inequities in our state is daunting, but the Campaign for Healthy Minds, Healthy Kids applauds New York’s leaders for recognizing the urgent need to act. As New York crafts solutions to the myriad inequities laid plain by the pandemic, we see a mandate from our youngest population to include them in this work.

Healthy minds for New York’s kids will mean a stronger, healthier, more equitable tomorrow.

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