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By David Woodlock and Amy Dorin
With a federal stimulus package still pending, the big question in Albany was whether Governor Cuomo will now make massive cuts to social services and other programs or wait for a bailout.
But that is the wrong question. Regardless of what happens in Washington, we should all be asking ourselves: How can New York make structural changes to the budget to accommodate the fact that social service organizations have been underfunded for years, especially now that there is a demand for mental health and substance abuse persists and other services they offer have skyrocketed because of the pandemic?
One answer is clear: the state needs to find more revenue to adequately fund the organizations that provide these services.
New York’s long-term recovery depends not only on fighting the virus, but also coping with the lasting effects of the trauma so many of us have experienced from the loss of family members, jobs, and incomes. There is abundant evidence that addressing people’s behavioral health needs reduces the risk of debilitating physical health problems. However, the challenges are enormous. Even at current levels of funding, social service organizations are struggling to meet demand.
A survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation in July found that 53% of adults across the country said their mental health was negatively impacted by the pandemic – up from 32% in March. A CDC survey found that more than one in three adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorders during the pandemic. In 2019 that number was 1 in 10.
Economic pressures, of course, play a big role in mental health. In New York, it is estimated that more than 1.2 million people will sign up for Medicaid due to the pandemic. In April, 68,000 New York City residents applied for nutritional supplementation benefits. This is the largest one month increase in applications since the grocery stamp program began in 1939. Unemployment in the five boroughs was 20% and is now 21% in the Bronx.
In the meantime, the frontline charities dealing with the suffering caused by the pandemic are hurting. A survey by the Coalition for Behavioral Health found that its members lost an average of $ 521,000 in sales between March and June, even though demand for their services rose 77%. More than one in four members said the demand exceeded their capacity.
As the epicenter of the pandemic, New York will address the economic and social impact of COVID-19 in the years to come. The budgetary crisis we are facing is compounded by an impending mental health crisis. Albany needs to make structural changes to ensure that New York Social Services has a consistent and adequate source of funding for the years to come. This must happen if the state is serious about reducing health care costs in the long term – regardless of how generous a federal rescue operation is.
David Woodlock is the President and CEO of the Institute for Community Living. He is a former assistant commissioner for the New York State Office of Mental Health. Amy Dorin is President and CEO of the Behavioral Health Coalition.