Cokes for mental health staff increased by 3.2% in budget

State budget leaders began meeting Monday to lay out spending plans for next year, with state mental health providers and those treating substance use disorders targeting a 3.2% pay raise for employees in the next budget.

Community behavioral health agencies want a cost-of-living adjustment increase of 3.2% in next year’s budget, saying decades of lower investment in the workforce have forced staffing declines as demand for services and worker vacancies increase.

Glenn Liebman, CEO of the Mental Health Association of New York State, said it was an inquiry based on the Consumer Price Index.

“It’s not an ideal,” Liebman said. “That’s the demand — we’re not pulling numbers out of thin air.”

Providers and advocates have begun petitioning Gov. Kathy Hochul, visiting the state Capitol and sending letters last week in anticipation of an upcoming wave of requests to influence what the governor includes in his executive budget.

“You’re on the front lines every day, working with people who have complex needs,” Liebman said.

Mental health advocates also want the Legislature to add another $500 million on top of the lack of investment in behavioral health over the past 15 years to keep up with the cost of living.

Liebman said the money could build services to help homeless New Yorkers and prevent drug overdoses and suicide deaths — both of which have increased since the pandemic.

“Imagine how different life would be if you added $500 million to the human behavioral health system,” he added. “How many fewer people will be incarcerated, how many fewer people will be homeless? How many fewer people will be alive because they won’t die from a drug overdose or suicide? … People’s lives will be more productive.”

Executives at Albany behavioral health provider North River Home Services said during a visit to the Capitol last week that low wages forced 25% of the agency’s employees to work second jobs and 5% to work three jobs.

Willie Leak, director of residential services at Northern Rivers Family Services, said state funding for higher wages is critical as more young New Yorkers rely on mental health and addiction support services important.

“They’re creating additional demands that you can’t even imagine, and we’re finding our workforce is overtired and overworked,” he said.

Senate Mental Health Committee Chair Samra Brouk said the state must continue to implement the historic $1.1 billion budget from the last budget as the state continues to grapple with the mental health crisis.

“When we think about human infrastructure and individuals, we need these positions. There’s no better investment than really making sure these folks know they can make a living wage every year,” Brooke said Monday.

The $1.1 billion investment aims to improve behavioral and mental health services in the state over five years. Budget officials said Monday that the multiyear plan focuses on capital financing, or construction projects, to expand mental health housing, outpatient services and other investments that will take years to materialize.

Meanwhile, senators have sponsored legislation to permanently tie cost-of-living adjustment increases for behavioral health workers to inflation and hope to include it in the governor’s budget. If not, she and supporters said they would push the Legislature to include it in the final spending plan and end the annual wage battle to keep up with inflation.

“It’s no surprise that we ask for an increase every year,” Brooke said. “Life has become more expensive and competition has become more fierce. In the wake of the global pandemic, we are still seeing the knock-on effects of the mental health crisis, particularly for our young people.”

Otherwise, providers and staff like Leak worry New Yorkers won’t be able to get the care they increasingly need.

“I hate to imagine that one day we wake up and we don’t have the staff to take care of these kids, because that’s a real place where we could end up,” he said.

The $229 billion budget for fiscal year 2023-24 passed in May included a 4% increase in COLA for mental health workers, less than half of the 8.5% hike they had fought for all year. Hochul originally proposed a 2.5% increase.

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