By State Representative Rob Nosse
Given how much I hear about the mental and behavioral health challenges in our city, I thought I would provide an update about what is going on at the state level on this important topic.
I serve as one of the co-chairs of the ways and means human services subcommittee in the Oregon Legislature along with State Senator Kate Lieber. For the most part, our committee determines the budget for the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Department of Human Services. You may have seen an interview about this in the Portland Tribune a couple weeks ago.
I also serve as the vice-chair of the House Behavioral Health Committee. Unfortunately, our state struggles with high rates of substance use disorder, overdose deaths and suicide. Mental Health America ranks Oregon 48th in the country due to our higher prevalence of mental illness and lower rates of access to care.
Meanwhile, people with behavioral health needs are “stuck” throughout the system – waiting for beds at the State Hospital stuck in the State Hospital because they cannot be discharged due to a lack of community placements, or stuck in jail or houseless with no way to recover.
Clearly none of this is good. Oregonians need and deserve better. Last session we took a long look at where gaps stood in the system and passed several bills aiming to tackle this.
We passed HB 2980 which funds new peer respite centers across Oregon. Peer respite centers are voluntary, 24-hour, overnight programs that provide community-based, non-clinical crisis support and temporary shelter to help people with mental health challenges find new understanding and ways to move forward.
I was the original sponsor on HB 3046 to try to treat behavioral health like physical health when it comes to access and reimbursement, and to ensure that we diagnose the cause and not the symptom.
HB 2949 provided funding for scholarship and loan forgiveness and paid internships so that people seeking to work in the behavioral and mental health professions will get financial support to pursue their education and training. We allocated $80 million to this effort.
The bill has an emphasis on supporting and recruiting people from more diverse backgrounds and experiences to make sure that more in our behavioral health system can offer treatment by someone who has similar lived experiences to them, especially when it comes to race and ethnicity.
Finding housing for people with chronic mental illness is a real challenge. We passed HB 2316 which created the Behavioral Health Incentive Fund to fund the development of community-based housing, crisis intervention services, rental subsidies and other housing-related services to help keep individuals with mental illness and individuals with substance use disorders safe and healthy in their communities.
Those are just a couple bills we passed as part of a larger $470 million investment to improve our Behavioral Health System.
One other major change came as a result of Ballot Measure 110, which Oregonians approved in 2020. The measure decriminalized the possession of hard drugs. The implementation of this vote was done legislatively through SB 755 which allocates almost $250 million for the biennium into addiction treatment and harm reduction from cannabis taxes.
This change is part of larger shift we are making from treating addiction like a crime to really treating the cause of the issue and helping individuals to truly heal.
I hope these bills and this budget is just the beginning. We must closely monitor our systems and see where these investments are having the largest impact and where more help is needed.
Meanwhile, almost immediately after session ended, we started hearing about how our mental health and behavioral health employers are struggling to retain their work force. This was due to increased workload, COVID-19 burnout and low pay in a sector already not very well paid.
Candidly, people are leaving for work that is less demanding and better compensated. As the February 2022 “short” session comes closer, watch for bills and budget initiatives to try to fix this problem.
Senator Lieber and I are running a year-long work group to help us understand the challenges in this system more clearly and identify additional solutions that be turned into bills for the 2023 session.
In addition to this work group, this past week I started touring community mental health programs (CMHPs) across Oregon to see the incredible work they do, where they need help, how the laws we passed this last session helped and what needs more attention.