Privatization Is Not Seen as the Answer to Youth Mental Health Crisis: State Officials, Advocacy Groups

By Tim Callahan
Tim Callahan
Tim Callahan
Tim Callahan is a freelance writer based in South Carolina.
February 12, 2022 Updated: February 12, 2022

State officials and advocacy groups in South Carolina and Michigan don’t see privatizing mental health services as an answer to the youth mental health crisis COVID-19 helped create by disrupting students’ lives.

They agree the solution is additional funding to increase salaries of school counselors and clinicians and hire new ones to replace many who left over fear of the virus—or for better-paying jobs.

Bill Lindsey, executive director of South Carolina’s chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said he was “shocked” to learn that Gov. Henry McMaster suggested the General Assembly evaluate whether the state should privatize behavioral health services currently provided by the Department of Mental Health. He said that idea is not going to help the youth of South Carolina.

“I am for anything that looks to improve the mental health care system in the state,” Lindsey said, “but I am not for privatization. That is a step too far.”

A recent staff editorial in South Carolina’s Post and Courier stated: “The first thing to know about this is that the governor hasn’t provided any indications, in his budget, his address [State of the State], or his executive order authorizing the study, that privatization would solve any of the problems we face.”

The problem South Carolina faces is a decimated mental health workforce in the schools, Lindsey told The Epoch Times. COVID-19 played a part in the workforce attrition, but he suspected many went on to jobs with better pay. “We have to be more competitive,” he said.

Tracy LaPointe, a spokesperson for the Department of Mental Health (DMH), told The Epoch Times in an e-mail that her agency is open to new ideas, but “our unique design results in decreased costs compared to systems that utilize privatization and contracting out of services.” (She noted DMH does contract out some services because they are the way to provide better quality for specific programs.)

The agency’s current financial needs far outweigh the results of a study of privatization, she said.

“Despite increased funding from the General Assembly which enabled the agency to increase almost all employees’ salaries by at least 4.5 percent this fiscal year,” LaPointe said, “the department has lost nearly 20 percent of its school-based clinicians since 2020, and the number of public schools with the department’s mental health counselors has dropped considerably over the past year-plus as a result.”

She said the Mental Health Department “has asked lawmakers for additional money in its fiscal year 2023 budget to further boost salaries. The amounts requested are aimed at raising employees’ pay as close to current market rates as possible.”

McMaster’s fiscal year 2022 executive budget proposal does include a $10.8 million increase in funding for the agency.

“Given the governor’s longstanding support of us and school mental health,” LaPointe said, “we assume the governor’s primary concern is expanding services and stemming the sharp decline in embedded school clinicians. We support this initiative.”

McMaster said in his State of the State address, “There is a mental health crisis in South Carolina, especially among our youth.” Virtual instruction, isolation, and a change of routine have contributed to the decline in students’ mental health, he said.

The governor’s chief communications officer, Brain Symmes, did not specifically say why the governor suggested evaluating the privatization of mental health services. However, he told The Epoch Times in an e-mail, “We need to consider all possible options for improving the services provided to our state’s students.”

Besides the suggestion of evaluating privatization, the governor gave a direct order to the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

“The governor has asked HHS to conduct a comprehensive review of the school mental health program because it isn’t up to par right now,” Symmes said. “With parents being billed exorbitant amounts and the high turnover rates we’re seeing among counselors, the governor wants somebody to get under the hood of the program so that we can chart a path forward.”

“Like the governor said in the State of the State address,” Symmes said, “he expects that HHS’ review and analysis will provide recommendations and options for moving forward, but we certainly wouldn’t want to speculate on what that may look like before they’ve done their work.”

Michigan

Privatization is also a hot topic in Michigan.

Two proposed state Senate bills (597 and 598) privatizing Medicaid mental health services in Michigan have sparked controversy. NAMI Michigan’s response—posted on Facebook Jan. 25—is that the bills are dangerous, costly, and bad for Michigan; the bills focus on money and contracts; they give full financial control and oversight or decision making to for-profit insurance companies; and they do not increase access to care and providers.

But those concerns may be mute as Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s actions and proposals reveal she also views additional funding as an immediate solution to her state’s own crisis.

“I think if we can keep the conversation around solving problems and meeting people’s mental health needs,” Whitmer told the Michigan Advance on Jan. 26, “maybe we can find a solution that doesn’t entail privatization.”

She said Michigan’s fiscal year 2022 budget included adding more funding for mental health in schools. Her office said that provided money for 560 additional nurses, counselors, and social workers to care for students.

Whitmer also said she plans to propose “another bold investment” of $25 million in mental health funding for schools in her upcoming fiscal year 2023 budget proposal. That money will go to retain or recruit 500 mental health professionals. The 2023 fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

The state senators who introduced SB 597 and SB 598 last July, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and Dr. John Bizen (R-Battle Creek), said the bills are still one of their top priorities this legislative session.

Tim Callahan
Tim Callahan is a freelance writer based in South Carolina.