Alaska’s looming government shutdown and mental health

Mental health and substance abuse treatment providers across Alaska are concerned about what a government shutdown might mean for our families, friends and neighbors who rely on behavioral health treatment services. Years ago, the state made the decision to contract with private, nonprofit treatment providers instead of providing health care services directly. These nonprofits have relied on a system of annual grant funding to offer those services for years. Year after year, behavioral health providers have worked with the ebb and flow of our state's economy trying to make sure that the critical services we provide are available to as many people as possible.

Earlier this month, the Department of Health and Social Services issued a press statement describing some of the effects of a potential government shutdown. In the press release, the department included an impact on "services provided through private organizations and businesses that receive DHSS grant funding." Here's what that means:

[Alaska state government is scheduled to shut down on July 1. Here's what that might look like.]

Most of the behavioral health treatment programs are private nonprofits, so they don't typically have much of a reserve to draw from to wait this out. Many are having to decide whether or not to suspend certain services to safeguard others. We can't, in all good conscience, kick out the severely mentally ill, kids with serious emotional problems or people trying to recover from substance use in residential treatment programs. We have to provide psychiatric emergency services and medication management. So that leaves intensive outpatient treatment services and other outpatient treatment services.

It may not seem like a big deal to some, but discontinuing supportive employment services may mean that someone working to regain a foothold in the job market loses their job. Discontinuing supportive housing services may result in someone becoming homeless. Discontinuing case management and treatment services may stop the progress of a family working toward reunification. For individuals receiving these services, the support may be the only thing holding their lives together and keeping their condition from spiraling out of control.

Suspending these services doesn't save money. Kids stay in state custody, people cycle back through public safety and into the prison system, and problems that are easier to address grow more complicated and costly.

No new funding has been authorized after the current fiscal year ends in a couple of weeks. Like any other business affected by the potential government shutdown, behavioral health treatment providers are struggling with how to pay for staff to provide services after the end of the month, how to pay rent and utilities to keep facilities open, and they are wondering how long they can hold on without funding. The effects of a government shutdown are far-reaching and can be devastating to the people we serve. We sincerely hope it won't come to that and appreciate the leaders who are working to help avoid it.

Tom Chard is executive director of the Alaska Behavioral Health Association.