Transforming the Mental Health System in California

States around the country are facing difficult budget realities and the after effects of the financial crisis. We all know that vital human services are the last to be funded and first to be cut, and will likely be on the chopping block again this year. Fortunately, we we can look to the recent past for examples of how SEIU members and community advocates have stood together to prevent cuts and expand access to services with innovative funding solutions.

In 2004, the thousands of SEIU workers in California who assist people diagnosed with mental illnesses rallied in the face of budget shortfalls that were depriving special-needs citizens from getting the assistance they need.

Together with advocacy organizations for people with mental health issues, they pushed for a new law that would bring hundreds of millions of new dollars into California’s mental health system, and also reform the ways mental health dollars were spent.

The “Millionaires’ Tax”

Proposition 63 caucusThe Mental Health Services Act (MHSA)–on California’s 2004 ballot as “Proposition 63” and commonly referred to as the “Millionaires’ Tax”–increased mental health funding by taxing individuals making more than $1 million per year. It generated more than a billion dollars since its passage in 2004 for the state’s mental health programs.

SEIU members like Shawn Rowland, a social worker from Alameda County, gathered the necessary signatures to get the measure on the ballot, held fundraisers to help support the measure, and educated the 600,000 SEIU members in the state of California on the importance of passing Proposition 63. Mental health workers discussed strategy to pass the MHSA during the “Proposition 63 Caucus,” which was organized by SEIU members including Rowland.

“The MHSA allows workers to work hand and hand with client self advocates, family members, community based organizations and other advocates to make a real difference in the mental health system in California,” said Rowland. “People on the front line, including workers and clients, now have a real voice in how services are delivered to those with mental health issues.”

New Funding in Action

After being in place just over one year, the Mental Health Services Act was generating hundreds of millions a year faster than expected and already reaching the state’s counties–bolstering new and existing mental health programs.

Shawna Atchison, a case manager in Ventura County and member of SEIU, joined the staff of a brand new geriatric mental health clinic in Oxnard for people with severe and persistent mental illness in 2005.

“Because of funding cuts, programs like this had been slashed and the population of older adults with disabilities were underserved,” said Atchison. “It is really rewarding and inspiring to help these people who are facing end-of-life issues, empowering them to find relief and the skills they need to remain active in their communities, providing them the quality of life that they so deserve.”

The men and women of SEIU who advocated for the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), along with those who will enter jobs that the new funding has created, have been able to have more of a say in the way counties deliver these new services, as will the clients themselves.

“The MHSA provides the vision and hope for the dedicated workers in this field, hope for the families, and hope for people with disabilities themselves,” said Atchison. “People living with mental illness have the same needs and desires as we do, and want to be a part of their communities. With this new funding, we’re making this vision a reality.”

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