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U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra in Albany to highlight mental health funding

New York Congressman Paul Tonko, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Regional Director for Region 2 of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Dr. Dara Kass.
Dave Lucas
New York Congressman Paul Tonko, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Regional Director for Region 2 of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Dr. Dara Kass.

New York Congressman Paul Tonko welcomed U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra to Albany this morning for a panel discussion about mental health investments.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act was signed into law in June. It extends enhanced federal funding for children and family and other mental health services, providing millions of dollars to address mental health issues nationwide. Secretary Becerra noted it also invests $150 million to support implementation of the 24/7, 9-8-8 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

“988," said Becerra. "That three digit number is actually helping people who are going through a mental crisis right now, today, and aren't sure where to turn. Rather than turning in the wrong direction, they're getting to dial three digits on their phone, 988. They can text or chat if they don't want to talk and it's working. And we want to make it work even better because behind it. We want the services to follow suit. So if you take the time to call us before you go in the wrong direction, we want you to know that we're going to be there to help. “

In July Governor Kathy Hochul announced all 62 counties in New York would participate in the 988 program.

Becerra says since he assumed his post "millions" of dollars have been appropriated to help address behavioral health challenges throughout the country, many exacerbated by COVID-19 and by the opioid crisis.

Panelists representing a wide array of mental health professionals and individuals who had experienced mental health crises lauded the funding and its effect on patient care.

Dara Kass, formerly an emergency medicine physician and Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, now serves as Regional Director for Region 2 of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“As I travel this region, as a regional director, and as a physician, I can see how deep the opportunities are to impact patients, whether it's responding to the needs of our young people, making sure that families get the support they need to support family members with mental illness, or ensuring that our workforce, which obviously is near and dear to my heart, is supported with the investments for the increased demand that they're seeing," said Kass. "This administration has made it a priority to address the full spectrum of needs that we're realizing, which is why we're here today, to discuss your work, and the impact that the resources that were allocated in the bipartisan Safer Communities Act will have to make our children safer, to make our community stronger. And to make our workforce more resilient.”

Tonko, a Democrat from the 20th district, says while a specific dollar breakdown of mental health services delivered in New York via the new law is not yet available, he notes that the measure has added significant amounts of money in an area that needs substantial investment.

Tonko issued a warning as Republicans take control of the House:

"We're already hearing talks of cutting Medicaid. Cutting Medicaid means reducing the largest revenue stream for mental health services in the country," Tonko said. "So we better see that for what it is, including for kids."

Panelists agreed that the pandemic contributed to a rise in mental health problems, especially those diagnosed in children.

After his stop in Albany, Becerra was heading to Rutland for a roundtable on the opioid crisis hosted by new Senator Peter Welch.

Dave Lucas is WAMC’s Capital Region Bureau Chief. Born and raised in Albany, he’s been involved in nearly every aspect of local radio since 1981. Before joining WAMC, Dave was a reporter and anchor at WGY in Schenectady. Prior to that he hosted talk shows on WYJB and WROW, including the 1999 series of overnight radio broadcasts tracking the JonBenet Ramsey murder case with a cast of callers and characters from all over the world via the internet. In 2012, Dave received a Communicator Award of Distinction for his WAMC news story "Fail: The NYS Flood Panel," which explores whether the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee could have been prevented or at least curbed. Dave began his radio career as a “morning personality” at WABY in Albany.