HARRISBURG, Pa. (ErieNewsNow) - Today at the state Capitol, doctors and advocates rallied for additional mental health support. They say Pennsylvania's shortage of behavioral health professionals is profound, and only getting worse. 

“Estimates suggest that half a million Pennsylvanians or more are going every year without any access to mental health services that they need,” said Dr. James James of St. Luke’s University Health Network. 

“Myself and those in search of behavioral health services and their families are exhausted,” said Sierra McNeil, a social worker and mental health advocate. “I think it's about time that we start putting our money where our mouth is. If you say you care about mental health, fund us. If you say that all Pennsylvanians deserve access to behavioral health service services, fund us. If you say you care about behavioral health workers, fund us,” she added. 

The shortage is leaving those who rely on services in a very difficult situation. 

“I was told that there were no other providers, no appointments. Just ‘sorry, we can't help you.’ Without providers, how do you get well? Where do you start? What do you do,” said Kate Fetzer, a peer leader at NAMI-Lehigh Valley. 

In last year’s budget, the House and Senate approved the formation of the Behavioral Health Commission on Adult Mental Health to provide recommendations on allocating one-time American Rescue Plan funds. Lawmakers say the commission’s recommendations on how to spend the $100 million were adopted into House Bill 849. The bill includes $34 million for workforce development, $31.5 million for criminal justice and public safety and $34.5 million for the stability and expansion of mental health services. 

The House passed the investments with bipartisan support in June. Democrats were hoping to see them in this year’s budget. 

“In this year's budget, the Senate went back on their word. Simply put, they redirected money that had been budgeted for adult based mental health and shifted it to school based mental health,” said Rep. Mike Schlossberg (D-Lehigh), the sponsor of HB 849. “House Bill 849 was supposed to take $100 million in money from the American Rescue Plan- the Senate not only didn't do this, but they took that $100 million, and instead, spent it on school based mental health that was originally going to be funded based on recurring revenues in the budget, as had happened last year,” Schlossberg added. “This is not an either-or proposition. We need to fund both.” 

However, Senate Republicans dispute that interpretation of how events unfolded. They say there was bipartisan agreement to create the commission in last year’s budget, but never agreement in both chambers on the legislation to drive out the funding.  

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Scott Martin (R-Berks/Lancaster) shared the following statement with Erie News Now Thursday afternoon: 

“The need for student mental health supports has grown greatly since the pandemic, and we need to find ways to get services to those in need without having to recreate the wheel. Ideally, we want to encourage more partnerships between counties and schools to get help to individuals who can benefit from these services.  I also understand the strain the pandemic has placed on the Commonwealth’s adult mental health system and was pleased to advance a $20 million initiative that increases support for counties to provide these services.” 

Whether included in this year’s budget, or passed separately, Schlossberg says lawmakers also need to provide the $100 million for struggling adults. 

“We believe that mental health and caring for the mentally ill is one of the most important and timely things the government can do today,” said Schlossberg.  

If the American Rescue Plan funding is not spent by December 2024, it will have to be returned to the federal government.