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Lawmakers seek to invest $4.4 million to fix Maine's broken mental health system

With dwindling resources, police officers have become the first line of defense in many communities.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine is facing a mental health crisis and state lawmakers are trying to figure out the best way to restore what many are calling a crumbling system.

Sen. Cathy Breen (D) and Rep. Charlotte Warren (D) introduced an effort to bolster resources statewide at a press conference in Augusta Tuesday.

"I have lived it,” Breen said. "I've had to call 911. We've had to have law-enforcement in our home trying to help us."

Breen was candid about having personally been impacted by mental illness in her family. With a daughter struggling with mental illness, Breen said it was hard finding the services despite having the means. 

"It's frustrating. It's very painful. More importantly, it's really stupid,” Breen said.

Both lawmakers are on a Mental Health Working Group that redrafted a bill, LD 803, sponsored by Warren to bring at least $4.4 million in funding to mental health services across the state.

The new amendment present to the Dept. of Health and Human Services Committee aims to hone on ‘existing community-based crisis services rather than building more institutional settings.’ Ideally, that would enable organizations to recruit and hire more mental health professionals.

The first draft of the bill sought to build four mental health centers across the state. Under the new proposal, that would not be the case.

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Breen said the legislation would look to ensure 24/7 access to crisis response services including the state’s Crisis Response Hotline and providers statewide. The Maine Sheriff’s Association attended the press conference Tuesday to support the effort.

With dwindling resources, police officers have become the first line of defense in many communities.

Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton said the jail he oversees has become ‘one of the largest mental health facilities in the state.’"Police officers should not be the default response for folks struggling with mental health issues and our jails should not be used to house them,” Morton said.

Mental health advocates, like those with the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), worry the effort by lawmakers is not comprehensive enough.

"We absolutely have to rebuild Maine's mental health system quickly and with intentionality,” Jenna Mehnert, Executive Director of NAMI MAINE said.

Mehnert said she is also concerned about how costs are being considered, as the group has yet to align MaineCare reimbursement rates with actual costs.

“We need to trust the administration. Work with the administration. To take incremental steps to rebuild an intentional system not just throw lots of money at different places,” Mehnert said.

Sen, Breen said the Mental Health Working group is looking to align those reimbursement rates—something that has not been done in over a decade.

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