Gov. Pat McCrory was joined by HHS Sec. Rick Brajer (l) and Director Andrew Health of the Office of State Budget and Management (r) as he outlined his priorities for the 2016 fiscal year.
Gov. Pat McCrory was joined by HHS Sec. Rick Brajer (l) and Director Andrew Health of the Office of State Budget and Management (r) as he outlined his priorities for the 2016 fiscal year. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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<p>As the legislative session nears, Gov. Pat McCrory makes his priorities known.

By Rose Hoban

Flanked by lawmakers and law enforcement officers on the steps of the gubernatorial mansion, Gov. Pat McCrory rolled out his priorities for this year’s health and human services budget, which includes at least $48 million in money for priorities ranging from expanding drug and mental health courts to adding several hundred more children to the NC Pre-K program.

Pointing to several law enforcement officers who have used naloxone to reverse opiate overdoses, McCrory also committed extra dollars to getting more of the drug out to first responders and expanding access to medication-assisted drug treatment.

“This whole investment is about family,” said Sen. Tamara Barringer (R-Cary), who has been a champion in the legislature for foster care children.

“Without healthy families, we don’t have healthy children and we won’t have a healthy North Carolina,” she said.

Wait lists whittled

Several of McCrory’s budget proposals would chip away at the long waiting lists in the health care system for people with disabilities and children.

The budget adds dollars for case management services for kids in the foster care system and the juvenile justice system and for kids with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Gov. Pat McCrory was joined by DHHS Sec. Rick Brajer (l) and Andrew Heath, director of the Office of State Budget and Management (r), as he outlined his priorities for the 2016 fiscal year. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

About 11,000 in that last group are on a waiting list for so-called Innovations waiver services that help children with intellectual and developmental disabilities remain with their families and receive comprehensive services.

The governor’s budget would reduce that waiting list by about 500, or fewer than 5 percent of people on the waiting list.

“We’re trying to work into it and trying to get as much support as we can,” said Department of Health and Human Services Sec. Rick Brajer. “If you take 11,000 slots that are currently on the waiver piece at $50,000 apiece, that would be $500 million. Therefore, it’s a concerted effort to make progress toward that.”

McCrory’s budget also allocates money to increase by 250 the number of people in the Community Alternatives Program for Disabled Adults, which has a waiting list of about 3,000 people.

When pressed, Brajer defended the governor and legislature’s commitment to reducing the waiting lists.

“Last year and this year, the department earned the lion’s share of new funding, or what’s called expansion funding from a state budget standpoint,” he said. “Last year, as I recall, we received 50 percent of all new funding across all departments of government. And as you know, we account for almost 35 percent of total budget dollars.”

“I think this is a great start,” said Jennifer Mahan, governmental affairs liaison for the Autism Society of North Carolina. “We do need more funding, especially for innovations slots. Those folks are waiting seven to eight years, which is much, much too long to wait.”

“We want folks to be able to get access to those services early,” she said. “We think we could easily absorb a thousand slots a year, and we’ll certainly be advocating for that with the legislature.”

McCrory also vowed to increase access for children with autism on Medicaid to applied behavioral therapies, the same kinds of treatments as mandated last year by the legislature for kids on private insurance.

Mental health additions

McCrory also said he wanted the legislature to approve at least $30 million in funding to enhance services for people with mental health issues.

He called for $3 million to create emergency and transitional housing for people with mental health and substance use problems who are transitioning out of prisons, jails and other institutions.

“Putting an addict in prison accomplishes nothing,” McCrory said. “We need to help them get help, because they’ll just go right out there on the street and have the same difficulties with themselves and their families and the community.”

“By the way, this is all going to end up saving us all money,” he said. “If we deal with it right the first time, it’s also going to help our Medicaid spending.”

Last year, the legislature trimmed $110 million from the fund balances of the state’s mental health managed care organizations. When asked if the governor’s budget would ask for restoration of those funds, Brajer said the LME/MCOs have not decreased what they are spending on services.

“They have unspent cash reserves, fund balances; and in total, those fund balances were $862 million. There was a lot of money that was unspent,” he said. “It was out of that unspent money that the legislature reduced their cash reserves.”

McCrory also said he wanted to put more resources toward specialty courts, such as courts for people discharged from the military and people with mental health issues.

Mental health courts have been around for about 15 years, and the state now has five: in Orange, Forsyth, Guilford and Mecklenburg county courts and one in the Brunswick district court. Veterans treatment courts are a newer phenomenon; one started in Harnett County in 2015.

This is only the beginning of the state budgeting process. Last week, McCrory released aspects of his  education budget and he said he’d have the rest for legislators’ review in the days before the General Assembly reconvenes for the shorter session, on April 25.

In prior years, however, many of  the governor’s priorities have gone unfunded by the legislature.

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Other items in the governor’s budget:

  • Proposes legislation to allow pharmacies to distribute naloxone and would allow for the state health director to write a standing order for naloxone for anyone who requests it.
  • Allows people with Alzheimer’s to access services through the Community Alternative Program for Disabled Adults.
  • Asks for $1 million for family caregiver support services.
  • Asks for a total of $8.6 million to improve training for child-care workers, decreased caseloads for children’s services workers and programs to improve the foster care system.
  • Asks for $750,000 in funding for Zika virus research and preparation.
  • Asks for money for child mental health crisis services.
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