Mackenzie Lever holds a photo of her 8-year-old son, Eli, who has been at Acadia Hospital for six months in late December while waiting his place in line for a residential bed. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais, is serving her second term in the Maine Senate and is a member of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. Rep. Lori K. Gramlich, D-Old Orchard Beach, is a long-time social worker serving her second term in the Maine House. She co-chairs the Behavioral Health Caucus.

During her State of the State address last week, Gov. Janet Mills outlined her priorities for this legislative session. While we have more to learn about her proposed supplemental budget, we want to highlight a persistent and growing issue in Maine: the crushing inaccessibility of mental health care, behavioral health care and substance use disorder treatment.

Last November, we helped organize a summit that brought together consumers, families, providers and policymakers to discuss Maine’s mental health services and find solutions to the shortage of care. At the conference, we heard story after story about the difficulty people experience finding care, how rate reimbursement stagnation has fueled this crisis and how our community mental health services network is on the brink of collapse.

As of Nov. 20, 2021, more than 2,300 people were waiting for openings for outpatient mental health treatment. More than 70 children continue to be in out-of-state treatment centers due to a lack of capacity in Maine-based organizations, keeping them isolated from their families. Meanwhile, more than 260 residential treatment beds for children remain empty here in Maine due to lack of staffing.

In the past year, more than 20 residential mental health programs in Maine have closed due to financial deficits and lack of staffing. Children experiencing a psychiatric crisis languish for days and sometimes weeks in beds in hospital emergency department hallways waiting for placement options. MaineHealth has reported that a third to half of emergency department beds are filled with individuals waiting to be discharged for residential mental health care.

Our local jails are also being overwhelmed by individuals experiencing mental health crises. There are only 85 mental health crisis workers in our state, compared with more than 2,500 law enforcement officers. This puts law enforcement officers in the position of having to respond to mental health crises, causing many struggling Mainers to get caught up in the criminal justice system instead of getting the care they need.

As if all of this were not bad enough, last year we lost an average of 12 Mainers a week from opioid overdoses. Those numbers represent children, parents and neighbors who could have been saved if they had adequate access to mental health care and substance use disorder treatment.

These are complex challenges, but we have solutions. This year, the Legislature is considering a suite of bills this session which, if passed into law and funded, will be critical steps toward rebuilding our behavioral health care system and moving our state forward.

LD 415, sponsored by our colleague Rep. Paul Stearns, would expand access to targeted case management for those on MaineCare receiving treatment for substance use disorder. Studies show these services are more likely to sustain addiction recovery. The bill proposes a $6.6 million investment by the state, which would allow us to draw on $14 million in federal funds.

LD 432 and LD 582, sponsored by Rep. Colleen Madigan, would, respectively, enhance treatment for children with mental health challenges and fund the most critically needed community services for individuals struggling with serious and persistent mental illness. Both bills would draw on a two-to-one match of federal dollars.

Finally, LD 496 would provide the resources needed for the nearly 700 kids on waitlists for home and community mental health treatment. It would also fund basic mental health outpatient treatment for thousands of Maine adults and children on waitlists. The bill represents a $9.2 million investment, which would draw an $18 million federal match.

Solving Maine’s mental and behavioral health crisis is not a partisan issue. In fact, all four of these bills have initially passed in the Legislature with unanimous votes. These bills are sponsored by Democrats and Republicans alike, and they address issues that affect all of us and every community in the state. It is far past time we acted to ensure all Mainers have access to the mental and behavioral health care they need.